Over 4,000 cancer diagnoses during Covid pandemic ‘may have been missed’

Number of cases diagnosed down 6% on projections in 2021 and 10 per cent in 2020

More than 4,000 cancers may have been missed during the Covid-19 pandemic, a new analysis suggests.

The impact of the pandemic continued to be felt in 2021, preliminary figures from the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI) show, when diagnoses were 6 per cent lower than projected.

The shortfall for male cancers was 9 per cent, compared to 3 per cent for women.

While smaller than the 10 per cent drop recorded in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the reduction points to the crisis having a longer-term impact on cancer services in the Republic. Overall, in 2020 and 2021, the reduction in cancer diagnoses was 8 per cent.


Over the two year period, the combined number of diagnosed cancers was down 4,320 cases; the reduction for 2021 alone was 1,665 cases.

“The impact of Covid-19 on the health of the Irish population is anticipated to have a long tail as its effects on the diagnosis and management of non-communicable diseases become apparent,” according to Prof Deirdre Murray, NCRI director. “While cancer survival rates continue to improve, the incidence of most cancers increases with age. People aged 65 years and older formed the largest cohort of Covid-19 deaths in Ireland so it is possible that some may have died before being diagnosed and treated for cancer.”

Colorectal, breast and cervical cancer case numbers, which were notably impacted by the pandemic in 2020, returned to expected case numbers in 2021.

The NCRI says liver, pancreatic and kidney cancers appear to have been most significantly impacted by the disruptions that occurred due to Covid-19. The shortfall for liver cancers was 36 per cent; for pancreatic cancer, 26 per cent; and for kidney cancer, 20 per cent.

Among women, pancreatic cancer cases were down 30 per cent on projections, while for men, livers cancers were down 39 per cent.

The Irish Cancer Society expressed dismay that fewer cancers had been diagnosed for a second year. “Cancer never went away during the pandemic but remained undetected due to a range of reasons including putting off seeking medical advice, disruption to health services and possibly death from Covid-19,” director of advocacy, Rachel Morrogh pointed out.

“Until we see data that shows the number of cancers diagnosed have returned to expected levels, the ICS will continue to call for urgent and accelerated measures from Government that get people diagnosed in the first instance and, secondly, that ensure swift access to cancer treatment.”

Some 25,046 cancers were registered in 2021 – 13,248 in men and 11,798 in women.

According to the Department of Health, 172 staff were recruited to cancer services last year and €20 million was provided to fund new services.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times