Drop in early cancer diagnoses during Covid prompts calls for worried Harrogate patients to see a GP
A drop in the number of people being diagnosed with early cancer at Harrogate hospital during the pandemic has sparked fears that many may not get treatment until it is too late.
Official figures seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service show a 13.7% reduction in cancer cases detected at stage one - when the chances of survival are highest - during the first 12 months of the Covid outbreak than during the same period a year before.
Cancer charities fear this means many people may unknowingly have the disease and are missing out on potentially life-saving treatment - and they have urged anyone with possible symptoms to get checked out as a matter of urgency.
Lisa Spivey, Macmillan partnership manager for West Yorkshire and Harrogate, said the "worrying" drop in diagnoses was down to patients being too scared to visit GPs in case they became infected with Covid.
She said: "Covid has been at the forefront of everyone's minds while cancer and other long term conditions have been forgotten.
"The last 12 months have had a massive impact on the number of people coming forward with any sign or symptoms. During the first wave especially, there were huge fears about Covid and GPs being busy.
"It's vital that we do catch cancer at the early stages because it gives us the best chance of treatment and recovery.
"It's a massive worry that more people may have been missed this year so we need anyone who has any symptoms - or anyone who just needs advice - to please come forward."
Dr Kathryn Scott, chief executive of Harrogate-based Yorkshire Cancer Research, added: "We’ve estimated that there could be more than 3,500 missing cancers in Yorkshire. These cancers are less likely to be found at an early stage, when there are more treatment options and the likelihood of survival is higher.
“The good news is that we have seen a surge in referrals recently, and we strongly urge people experiencing possible symptoms of cancer, or any unusual changes to their body, to contact their GP as soon as possible."
The NHS has worked hard to maintain cancer care during the pandemic, with services at Harrogate hospital remaining open throughout.
While 509 patients at the hospital were diagnosed with stage one cancer between March 2019 and February 2020, this dropped by 13.7% to 439 in the same following period – a fall of around five people a month.
The number of people being diagnosed during the later stages - where the cancer spreads and becomes progressively harder to treat - has also fallen in all categories.
Emma Radcliffe, lead cancer manager at Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust said while the hospital is not facing the challenge of backlogs because services have continued, there are uncertainties ahead around how many patients could come forward with late stage cancer.
She said: “The team has worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic to continue providing vital cancer care – that hasn’t stopped. We’ve introduced new measures to keep our most vulnerable patients out of the hospital environment.
“In terms of the impact the pandemic will have had on cancer services going forward, because we have kept services going we don’t have a backlog so will continue to care for patients in a timely manner.
"However, there is a potential challenge because we don’t know about those patients who’ve not come forward to us, and the impact for them and us. It may be that their cancer is more challenging to treat – that’s why it’s so important that if someone is concerned, they see their GP as soon as possible."
She added: “Our really important message to people is that if you’ve had unexplained blood that doesn’t come from an obvious injury (such as blood in your poo or pee), an unexplained lump, weight loss which feels significant to you or an unexplained pain that lasts three weeks or more, it could be a sign of cancer.
"It’s probably nothing serious, but finding cancer early makes it more treatable, so just speak to your GP. We can’t stress that enough."
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter