People ignoring cancer symptoms for fear of catching COVID or to avoid strain on the NHS, , says new study

·2-min read

People with the deadliest types of cancer are less likely to seek medical treatment now than at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Campaigners, survivors, and the government are worried that people are ignoring symptoms or delaying medical appointments to avoid placing extra strain on the NHS.

Cancers with the highest death rates often don't have easily recognisable symptoms and awareness of them tends to be low. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 67,000 deaths a year in the UK were caused by lung, liver, brain, stomach, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer. That's around 50% of all cancer deaths.

One third of patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital after symptoms have become more severe and the prospect of recovery lower.

That, in part, accounts for the catastrophically low average five-year survival rate of just 16% for such cancers. For other common cancers, the proportion diagnosed at such a late stage is just 15% and the average five-year survival rate is markedly higher at 69%.

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New data from the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce shows that the number of people with early symptoms of cancers with high death rates who seek medical advice has dropped from 69% to 59% since the start of the pandemic.

The main reasons people are avoiding speaking to their doctor is because they don't want to burden the NHS even further, and they're worried about being exposed to the virus.

"It's undeniable that the NHS is under huge pressure but it's essential that people do not put off seeking medical advice if they have symptoms. Early diagnosis of these cancers is crucial," said Anna Jewell, chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce.

John Elliott called his doctor when he started getting persistent heartburn.

"I've always been one of these people that likes to eat quickly, but I was getting quite a lot of reflux action and heartburn," said John.

Tests showed that John had oesophageal cancer. After six rounds of chemotherapy and an operation, John got the all clear. His early action saved his life.

"The surgeries might look shut, but the GPs are there answering calls, so do not delay," said John.

John's treatment was quick enough to save his life, but across the country cancer patients are competing with COVID patients for precious space in hospitals.

Some 40,000 fewer people started cancer treatment in 2020 according to Cancer Research UK.

The government says cancer care is back on track in most regions and the Health Secretary is urging people not to delay getting checked out if they notice unusual symptoms.