'60,000 cancer patients could die because of lack of treatment or diagnosis': Oncologist on coronavirus dilemma

  • Words by Professor Karol Sikora, Chief Medical Officer, Rutherford Cancer Centres

Following the news, you would be forgiven for thinking we had discovered an overnight cure for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and all the other serious illnesses that have taken far more loved ones than coronavirus ever will.

There is no doubt that we are in a tragic and unprecedented situation.

This ghastly virus has killed thousands of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues. Any death is regrettable and my thoughts go out to all of the families.

But unfortunately, during my 50 year fight with cancer, we’ve won many battles, but we’ve also lost many people before their time.

Cancer doesn’t care about coronavirus. It’s a relentless evil and it requires constant vigilance to even slow the spread.

In a usual April, we would normally see around 30,000 people diagnosed with cancer. I would be surprised if that number reaches 5,000 this month.

Coronavirus will steal the headlines, but cancer kills 450 people a day in the UK - there is no peak and the numbers aren’t coming down. Unless we act urgently, that number will rise. A group of oncologists, including myself, estimate that 60,000 cancer patients could die because of a lack of treatment or diagnosis.

It’s absolutely right to stop the treatment for some cancers in the face of coronavirus. The immunosuppressive effects of the treatment would put the patient at risk as their immune system is significantly weakened. But for others, a delay of more than a month would have a negative impact on the future prognosis.

Cancer does not care about coronavirus, writes Professor Karol Sikora, Chief Medical Officer, Rutherford Cancer Centres. Credit: PA

Diagnosing cancer early is crucial. People don’t want to go anywhere near a hospital now, I understand that, but it means there will be thousands of people who currently have cancer and do not know it. The NHS has spent years pushing people to get checked and all that hard work has been undone in a blink. I can’t stress this enough, if you have a lump, you’re losing weight too quickly, you have abdominal pain - ring your GP and get checked.

Even at the best of times the NHS works at nearly full capacity. Now, diagnostic equipment is empty and oncologists have few new patients to see. A standard radiotherapy machine can deal with around 40 patients a day. What happens when the huge backlog of patients we are accumulating all need treatment as things get back to normal? The backlog will be horrendous.

We are sleepwalking in to a massive crisis and cancer patients will die unnecessarily if we don’t act now.

So how do we fix it?

Ignore the doom-mongers, we are getting control of this pandemic - the trends on hospitalisations and deaths improve every day.

We need to get the NHS moving again. Building the Nightingale hospitals was a fantastic achievement, but they sit empty. Let’s use those to treat the Covid-19 patients and get normal hospitals back to doing what they do best.

People forget that before this crisis the NHS was overstretched. As the pressure builds now, I worry the dam will soon burst with awful consequences.

We’ve seen that famously bureaucratic NHS chiefs have learnt to be more flexible. In some areas, the private sector has been able to alleviate the pressure on NHS hospitals and that is fantastic.

Many beds at some of the Nightingale hospitals are empty, writes Prof Sikora. Credit: PA

In other areas, we could go further. Proton Beam Therapy for example, a precise and advanced form of radiotherapy which can have excellent results, has been rationed even more than usual.

My network, The Rutherford Cancer Centres, has three operational centres and is capable of treating hundreds of patients who need this state-of-the-art therapy.

Before the crisis the NHS have sent patients abroad to receive this treatment, now that’s impossible it would make sense to embrace the private sector in the UK to ensure patients don’t suffer.

We want to throw our doors open to everybody. Our Proton suites have spare capacity while NHS patients have their treatments delayed - it makes no sense.

Coronavirus has turned the world upside down and our Government is right to take the measures it has. Our collective effort to battle this virus has been remarkable, but in doing so we have thrown down our weapons in the much deadlier war against cancer.

Thousands of patients, many whom are undiagnosed today, will suffer unless we act now. I hope the Government is listening.

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