A record-breaking 2.7 million people were referred for cancer checks over the last year, NHS England has said, after figures suggested the pandemic saw numbers dramatically decline in 2020.
The number of patients receiving treatment for the disease has also risen, by 2,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to the health service.
According to data from NHS England and NHS Improvement, referrals for suspected cancer remained at around 116% of pre-pandemic levels even during the peak of the Omicron wave, and rose overall from 2.4 million to 2,657,316.
Around 315,000 patients also started treatment compared with 313,000 before Covid-19 struck, they added.
Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England, said there were still 30,000 people who have not yet started treatment due to the pandemic, but that the latest figures suggested progress.
“We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage so that we can save more lives,” she said.
“We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic, so it’s vital that we keep these referral rates high.”
In order to meet the increasing demand for cancer checks, the NHS said it has expanded its services’ diagnostic capabilities across the country in a range of ways.
Facilities such as one-stop shops for tests, mobile clinics and cancer symptom hotlines are helping to ensure people are diagnosed and treated as early as possible, the health service said.
Clive Horsnell, 72, from Devon, was diagnosed with bowel cancer last year.
After being treated with advanced robotic surgery, he has now been given the all clear.
Spotting cancer at an early stage means that treatment is more likely to be successful. If you notice something that's not normal for you, talk to your GP.
— Cancer Research UK (@CR_UK) April 29, 2022
Mr Horsnell, who lost his mother aged 18 to a brain tumour and has four sisters as well as a son who have all suffered from the disease, was experiencing symptoms and eventually had a colonoscopy that caught the cancer in time.
“I was in hospital within a couple of weeks for scans and met with a doctor at Derriford Hospital who was absolutely brilliant and explained the special robotic procedure I’d be having. He really put my mind at ease,” he said.
“I was back in again in January just to confirm that everything had gone well, and I’ve had the all clear.”
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England national clinical director for cancer, said: “We know the pandemic meant that at first we saw fewer patients, but in the last year GPs have been referring people for investigation in record numbers and have been working hard to make sure people with worrying symptoms can be seen. The NHS has continued to prioritise cancer care throughout the pandemic.”
Prof Johnson also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The numbers of people that we’re seeing for cancer tests have been going up at a faster rate than the numbers of people with cancer.
“Because our population is ageing and because people happily are not dying from other things like strokes and heart attacks in the numbers that they used to, we see about 3% more cancers every year.
“But that actually knocks on into a much higher number of people actually having treatment because we’ve got more treatments than we could offer before and we’re treating people at about double the rate as the incidents are going up.”
It comes after MPs warned that Covid-related disruption mean more people will not have cancer diagnosed until it has reached a later stage, when it is harder to treat.
In a report earlier this month, the Health and Social Care Committee said three million fewer people in the UK were invited for cancer screening between March and September 2020.
And between March 2020 and March 2021, 326,000 fewer people in England received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.
The Omicron wave also saw more cancellations of vital cancer treatments, “indicating the NHS is still not able to access sufficient Covid-free treatment capacity to safeguard treatments and address the backlog,” the MPs said.
Charities have welcomed this year’s increase in referrals but warned of the “devastating” impact of the pandemic on cancer care, and urged the Government to tackle the “chronic” problem of NHS understaffing in its 10-year cancer plan.
Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is reassuring to see record numbers of people coming forward with cancer symptoms for these life-saving checks.
“However, people living with cancer are often missing out on crucial care as a result of chronic NHS understaffing.
“To avoid putting further pressure on hardworking doctors and nurses, it’s vital the Government includes steps in the upcoming 10-Year Cancer Plan to grow the number of cancer professionals so that people living with cancer receive the quality and timely care they desperately need.”
Ian Walker, executive director of policy, information and communications at Cancer Research UK, said: “We know that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on cancer services and cancer waiting times were being missed before the pandemic struck. It’s very encouraging to see an increased number of people being referred for cancer checks.
“But it’s vital that the efforts of NHS staff are bolstered in the Government’s forthcoming 10-year Cancer Plan.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The pandemic put unprecedented pressure on the NHS and it is positive to see more people coming forward for treatment and record numbers of people receiving life-saving cancer checks.
“Our upcoming 10-year cancer plan that will lead Europe in cancer care, along with our record investment to cut waiting times and the introduction of the health and social care levy, will help us continue our mission to tackle the Covid backlogs.”