Cancer. The word itself is scary even at the best of times. Learning that you or a loved one have been diagnosed is a very worrying and stressful time. We know, because we help our customers navigate those early weeks after diagnosis every day. During a global pandemic where medical resources are under more pressure than before and the future feels very uncertain, it’s not surprising that a cancer diagnosis can feel more challenging than ever. But if you look at the headlines, you won’t see much about cancer. At Lime we feel strongly that in these difficult times it’s more important than ever that we talk about cancer, about the people being diagnosed or waiting for tests, the people waiting for treatment, people undergoing treatment, the families wondering how they will afford to pay their bills when the breadwinner is fighting cancer in a troubled economy. That is one of the reasons we agreed to support a new report, published in association with The Times last week called Combatting Cancer. You can read the full report here.
So, what has been happening in terms of cancer and cancer care in the time of COVID-19? Well, as you can probably imagine, it’s not great. The pandemic has wrought havoc across cancer care and the impact makes pretty grim reading. In many cases diagnostic centres and treatment clinics have been cancelled or postponed across both the NHS and the private sector partly due to concerns over transmitting the virus coupled with staff shortages. According to the Combatting Cancer report, a recent University College London study noted a 76% decrease in urgent GP referrals for suspected cancer plus a 60% decrease in chemotherapy appointments by the end of April, compared to pre-COVID levels and the same study predicts a 20% increase in cancer deaths expected in England directly due to COVID-19. The Lancet Oncology, also quoted in the Combatting Cancer report, suggests that delays in diagnosis caused by the pandemic could result in up to 3,600 lives lost across the UK to four main cancers over the next five years.
However, there are some chinks of light in this rather gloomy picture. Staff right across the cancer care spectrum have worked incredibly hard to continue to support patients both medically and emotionally. This has included home-based cancer care with patients receiving chemotherapy orally at home instead of intravenously in hospital. Where possible drugs are being chosen that have less of an impact on patients’ immune systems to reduce the risk of infection. Mobile “cancer buses” have been deployed as safe spaces to provide chemotherapy treatment away from the hospital environment and, similarly, physical appointments have been taken online where possible to avoid risk of exposure to COVID-19. One of the more surprising silver linings mentioned in the Combatting Cancer report is the fact that increased number of chest scans taking place in hospitals due to COVID-19 has led to an incidental increase in the number of cancers being diagnosed. Although it would obviously be bad news for the individual patient to hear that they also have cancer, its far better for cancer to be caught as early as possible to get the best outcome in terms of treatment and recovery.
Clearly, there’s still a long road ahead. Cancer care in the time of COVID-19 is troubling for all involved – from diagnosis to treatment and the challenges of living with an increased vulnerability to infection during a pandemic. At Lime, we continue to work hard to support our cancer cover customers and we hope that as government, patients and the medical community alike adapt to this new environment, cancer will not become “the forgotten C” of the pandemic.