Cancer detection fell in Scotland during pandemic

About 1,600 fewer people than expected were diagnosed with the three most common cancers during the first nine months of the Covid pandemic.

Public Health Scotland has attempted to work out how restrictions put in place at the start of coronavirus affected diagnosis of the disease.

The statistics show that breast cancer diagnosis was down by 19%, bowel cancer by 25% and lung cancer by 9%.

The data also showed cancer was not being diagnosed at the earliest stages.

This is when treatment is most successful.

Cancer Research UK called for urgent action to prevent progress on cancer survival going backwards.

  • Cancer referrals return to pre-pandemic levels

“If swift action isn’t taken, our fear is that cancer survival in Scotland could go backwards.”

The Covid-19 lockdown at the end of March 2020 led to severe restrictions on hospital appointments and a halt to cancer screening.

The Public Health Scotland report said the biggest drop in cancer diagnoses was in that initial lockdown from April to the end of June last year.

In the remaining months of 2020, the numbers of people diagnosed with breast and lung cancer started to return to pre-pandemic levels, although colorectal (bowel) cancer figures remained well below previous years.

‘Urgent action needed’

The PHS report said that during the nine months of the pandemic in 2020 (April-December), there were 2,681 patients diagnosed with breast cancer. This is 635 fewer than the expected 3,316, based on previous years.

For bowel cancer there were 1,958 patients, 647 fewer than expected. Lung cancer was 3,287, 325 fewer.

The statistics show that for breast cancer, there were large falls numbers diagnosed at early stages, with stage 1 down 35% and stage 2 down 15%. In contrast, there were small increases in stages 3 and 4.

For colorectal cancer, there were substantial drops in the numbers diagnosed with stages 1, 2 or 3 and lung cancer also had fewer people diagnosed at early stages.

David Ferguson, from Cancer Research UK in Scotland, said the PHS report reinforced fears that opportunities to diagnose cancer at an early stage were missed during the pandemic.

He said: “Urgent action is needed. Cancer survival wasn’t good enough before the pandemic. Too many people are waiting far too long for diagnosis and treatment so this must be addressed.”

He called for a “road map” to tackle staff shortages and backlogs.

“If swift action isn’t taken, our fear is that cancer survival in Scotland could go backwards,” he said.

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