Delayed Diagnosis of Cancer During COVID-19: What’s the Deal?

Delayed diagnosis of cancer is rife right now, with the coronavirus crises still gripping our society. But, why is COVID-19 causing these problems? Find out more, here…

With coronavirus still running rampant, it’s not just COVID-19 patients who are suffering. Cancer patients, and potential cancer patients who have gone undiagnosed, are being pushed aside, potentially costing lives long the way.

Right now, questions of a negligent doctor or GP could be plaguing your mind. That said, is it negligence, or is COVID-19 playing a huge part in cancer treatment right now?

Here, we’ll be discussing the reasons why delayed cancer diagnoses are occurring right now, in the midst of 2020. We’ll also be talking a little about why cancer treatments are being postponed, and why a new normal for cancer patients might be on the horizon. To discover more, read on…

10 Ways COVID-19 is Causing Delayed Diagnosis of Cancer

With everything going on right now, it’s thought that an estimated 60,000 cancer patients might be mortally affected by this pandemic. With the timeline of cancer being so precarious, every month counts. So, if the referral pathways, surgeries, and treatments are delayed, even by a few months, this could have a drastic affect.

During these times, GPs and hospitals have actually seen a huge drop in cancer diagnosis. This can’t be a coincidence, so why is cancer diagnosed so late during the COVID-19 pandemic? Some of the reasons why cancer diagnosis is becoming less common right now include…

  1. People are Anxious to Go to the Doctors

On a normal basis, there are a huge number of cancer sufferers who go undiagnosed due to not going to the doctor for their symptoms. This could be because:

  • Their symptoms aren’t that noticeable;
  • Their symptoms aren’t that serious;
  • They’re concerned about wasting the doctor’s time;
  • They have medical anxiety, and don’t wish to visit the GP;
  • Or they feel their symptoms are embarrassing.

During the coronavirus pandemic, this is exacerbated. Not only do we have the problems of before, but many potential patients of cancer are feeling anxious to seek medical advice. When attending the doctors or GP surgeries, there is a higher risk of infection, and these fears are changing things for everyone.

2. Shortages in Hospital Staff

Considering the huge influx of new patients coming into the hospital every day due to the pandemic, doctors are becoming scarce. This means that there simply aren’t enough to go around, and prioritisation has to occur, leaving cancer patients at risk.

3. Doctors Anxious About Referring Patients Due to Fear of Infection

What’s more, even if cancer is detected by a GP, there are fears about referring these people to the hospital. After all, here is where infection is rife, and anyone with cancer is immunosuppressed, and at high risk.

This is clear in statistics, wherein there has been a 25 percent drop in “urgent referrals” of cancer in recent months. So, doctors have to juggle sending cancer patients somewhere where they might pick up the disease, over being untreated for a few months. This drop means that over 2,300 cancers are going undiagnosed each week, in the UK alone.

4. Symptoms Being Dismissed

Due to the pressures of the coronavirus on GPs and doctors right now, it’s very possible that common symptoms of cancer might be ignored. The usual suspects, like lumps or rectal bleeding, are red-flag symptoms, and will likely remain diagnosed. However, more wishy-washy symptoms, like fatigue, weight loss, and more, may go under the radar.

5. Symptoms Might Link to Coronavirus

Not only this, but some say that lung cancers are going undiagnosed as the respiratory symptoms are very similar to that of coronavirus. This means that persistent coughs might be put aside as trivial, when they could be much more serious.

6. Switch to Remote Consultation

To add to all this confusion, the additional caveat of remote consultations could mean that symptoms go unnoticed. A lot of doctor referrals may be based on the gut feeling of the patient or doctor. But, these sorts of diagnoses may now be limited during virtual check-ups, as body language and visuals come out of the picture.

To add to this, remote consultations might be tricky to access for those with a low socioeconomic background. After all, access to phones, money, laptops, and time could stop them from being able to access appointments. So, thousands of people are at a disadvantage.

7. Screening Services Paused

Unfortunately, even if someone is sent for a referral, screening services for cancer have been officially paused. This means that around 200,000 people a week will no longer be screened for potentially serious cancers.

Instead, we’ll now have to be much more reliant on symptom-based diagnoses. Not only is this an issue due to symptoms being ignored at the moment. In fact, for certain cancers, like breast, cervical, and bowel, screening could actually be a matter of life and death.

In fact, these screenings can show signs of cancer before symptoms even begin to show. For extremely time-sensitive cancers, like urinary and bowel, this could be fatal for many.

8. No Consensus on the Management of Cancer Diagnoses

Even if, after all this, a cancer is diagnosed and the patient makes it into primary care, what now? There are no clear pathways on how cancer should be managed during the pandemic, which means doctors are playing it by ear, in a sense. So, lifesaving screenings and surgeries could be put aside to prioritise coronavirus patients.

9. Overall Strategy Doesn’t Cater for Cancer Patients

What’s more, the overall COVID-19 strategy simply doesn’t cater for cancer patients. With the NHS’s agreement with private UK healthcare teams, equipment and beds have been shared to the NHS.

That said, these are beds and intensive care facilities that cancer patients truly need. This means that staff and facilities are being stretched, so urgent surgeries are being postponed.

10. Prioritisation is Taking Place

Overall, it’s clear that prioritisation of coronavirus patients is occurring. So, where breast symptoms might have usually sent people on the two-week pathway to treatment, for example, this will no longer go ahead. Ultimately, this could put thousands of potential cancer sufferers at risk.

What Happens if a Cancer Diagnosis is Delayed?

For a number of cancers, a delayed diagnosis might not necessarily affect the patient. If the cancer is slow to move and grow, then a delay may not be fatal.

That said, for some cancer diagnoses, a delay in treatment could lead to a worse prognosis. This could mean more treatment is required than would have been if it had been caught earlier. Overall, this could lead to a lower quality of life for the patient, and a lower survival chance.

In a worst case scenario, a late stage cancer diagnosis for patients suffering from bowel cancer and bladder cancer could be a whole different story. Even with a short delay of around three months, 10 to 15 percent of people who would usually get cured may not. This rises to 25 to 30 percent after six months, showing just how time sensitive some cancers are; this pandemic really is a matter of life and death.

Cancer Treatment Delays Due to COVID-19

It’s not just diagnoses that are being put aside. Even patients with recognised cancers that require urgent care are being dismissed. In general, the entire landscape of cancer management is having to evolve.

According to Macmillan Cancer Support, they have experienced a rise in calls of cancer patients who are concerned about the current situation. They worry that their treatments have been postponed, and that their lives might be in danger.

So, how exactly is this all manifesting within hospitals? Some classic examples include:

  • Postponed surgeries: the risks vs. the benefits of surgeries, and the exposure the cancer patients will face, is having to be discussed.
  • Lack of equipment: beds, ventilators, and everything in between are sparse right now. This exacerbates the issue of surgeries, which are being postponed due to a lack of aftercare available.
  • Chemotherapy affected: not only are life-changing surgeries being postponed, but more palliative or long-term care are being hit too. Due to the immune risks associated with catching COVID-19 with cancer, the risks and benefits of coming in for treatment are being weighed up.

A New Normal?

As you can see, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the preventative measures against cancer that were in place before all this. Now, thousands more lives will be at risk due to delayed diagnoses and treatment. So, it seems we either have to role with the punches, or changes need to be made, and quickly, for improving early cancer diagnosis.

Changes to treatment are being looked into to prevent any cancer diagnosed too late. With the NHS never having experienced something like this before, it’s a battle with time, capacity, and governmental guidance. But, with COVID-19 not looking to leave us soon, it looks as though our new normal will have to take cancer into account too.

Have you had any problems with receiving treatment or diagnoses during this time? Or, do you have anything to add to the reasons why delayed cancer diagnoses are occurring right now? Whatever it may be, feel free to join the discussion in the comments section below!

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