People waiting up to a year to report cancer symptoms due to Covid-19 fears

Cancer doctors call for ‘catch-up’ strategy to deal with missed diagnoses of the past year

The pandemic has ‘highlighted pre-existing weaknesses’ in cancer services, a radiation oncologist warned. Photograph: iStock

The pandemic has ‘highlighted pre-existing weaknesses’ in cancer services, a radiation oncologist warned. Photograph: iStock

 

Patients are waiting up to a year to report cancer symptoms due to a reluctance to visit GPs over concerns about becoming infected with coronavirus, a leading cancer doctor has warned.

Dr Sinéad Brennan, a radiation oncologist at St Luke’s Hospital in Dublin, said that doctors were seeing patients present with symptoms at much more advanced stages of cancer due to the virus.

She and other doctors have expressed concerns about the impact of the pandemic on cancer treatment and called for urgent action to tackle the disruption in health services from the virus.

Dr Brennan said patients “have had symptoms for much longer by the time they are diagnosed, often going on several months to a year rather than a few weeks or months that we would normally see, and are reluctant to go to their GPs for worrying symptoms of cancer”.

She said patients were reluctant to undergo treatment due to perceived infection risk.

‘Catch-up screening’

The pandemic had “highlighted pre-existing weaknesses” in cancer services, she said, calling for more resources for “catch-up screening” to reschedule missed or cancelled appointments.

Doctors have raised fears about delays in screening and tests to diagnose cancers with waiting lists lengthening and “increasing exhaustion and worry among staff and patients”.

Prof Donal Brennan, a Dublin-based gynaecological oncologist, said that the focus on cancer prevention had been “forgotten”, citing the suspension of the HPV vaccination programme. He warned there would be significant waiting lists for non-urgent care “for many years to come”.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing some delayed presentation and more advanced disease due to lack of access to diagnostics in the community,” he said.

His remarks were released along with comments from other doctors by the Irish Cancer Society ahead of its “Daffodil Day” fundraising event for cancer services on Friday.

Prof Séamus O’Reilly, medical oncologist at Cork University Hospital, said that a “catch-up strategy” was urgently needed to address the missed diagnosis and treatment over the past year.

A “keep-up strategy” was also required to protect future cancer services during the pandemic by properly resourcing “green” or Covid-free care pathways, he said.

‘Exhausted’

“Staff are exhausted at the moment and it is also taking a toll on the mental health of cancer patients,” he said.

Earlier this week, it emerged cancer services will not be fully resumed until the end of this year under a three-phase plan drawn up by the Health Service Executive for a safe return of services that have been curtailed by the virus.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that the Government’s “safety net arrangement” to use private hospitals during the pandemic would be used to deal with the backlog in non-coronavirus healthcare, including cancer treatment, elective surgeries and outpatient appointments.

Mr Martin conceded that the virus had put pressure on cancer care services. Backlogs in cancer care were being addressed, he said; GP referrals for the first 10 weeks of this year amounted to 110 per cent of last year’s levels with referrals in breast, lung and prostate continuing at high levels.