17 Aug 2022

Impact of Covid pandemic results in more than 1,000 'missing' cancer patients in Northern Ireland

Meeting told of that many patients will not be treated until their cancer has advanced


Local MLAs learnt of 1,130 ‘missing’ cancer patients Northern Ireland as part of a virtual All Party Group on Cancer (APGC) meeting today. 

A study by NI Cancer Registry Director, Professor Anna Gavin, indicated that between March and August this year there had been 23% fewer cancer diagnoses recorded compared to the same period last year.

Professor Gavin said: “Annually, approximately 10,000 persons in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with cancer, excluding the common non-melanoma skin cancer.

"In the first six months of the pandemic, from March to September 2020, we conservatively estimate that there have been 1,130 fewer cancers diagnosed pathologically than would have been expected.

"This is equivalent to 1 in 5 ‘missing’ cancers.

"The unfortunate reality is that these individuals will present weeks, months or years from now, with a cancer that is more advanced and therefore harder to treat.

"While cancer services have started to recover, we expect that the improvements in cancer survival seen over recent years will have halted or reversed."

Dervilia Kernaghan, Head of Care Services, Cancer Focus NI, said: “We acknowledge the extreme pressures that the health service is under and welcome the Health Minister’s £12.1m funding to prioritise diagnostic services.

"However, we are worried about what lies ahead with the likelihood of further postponements if too many patients are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and medical resources are diverted to deal with them.

"On top of this there will be an inevitable backlog and wave of later stage diagnoses creating further pressure on our health system, as those diagnosed at a later stage often need more intensive and expensive treatment compared to those diagnosed at an early stage.

“Delays in treatment place enormous stress on patients and on their families, who are waiting and worrying.

"The support services that Cancer Focus NI offers, such as counselling and family support, have never been more in demand. And like many cancers services we had lengthy waiting times pre COVID. Many people are now often waiting months for a first appointment with a counsellor.

“We need a twin-track health system where we’re able to cope with demands of the pandemic and continue to treat routine conditions and offer services to people who need them, instead of an infection-control health service.

"We need to see guidance around protecting routine & emergency procedures. More resources need to be made available on a long-term basis and built into the new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland.”

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