Cancer patient says NHS is gambling with his life - and doctors warn of thousands more like him during Covid pandemic

To an extent the tragic legacy of Covid-19 will be quantifiable. History will judge how bad a pandemic it was by the number of deaths, hospitalisations, cases and those suffering with long Covid.

More than 100,000 have died from Covid in the UK so far, a clear sign already of the impact it's caused. The sad fact is though, there will be an even greater legacy that is much harder to quantify - indirect deaths and illness caused by Covid.

I am specifically thinking of cancer here, although of course there will be many deaths from stroke and heart disease patients who may have had referrals delayed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, medics warned by the end of it we would see more deaths to cancer than coronavirus. 

At the height of the first wave NHS England made it very clear that elective surgery would be paused but urgent operations and cancer care would continue, to a large extent the NHS kept to this.

'When I cry for help, no one at the other end is listening'

Peter Marsden is struggling to survive in limbo.

He's awaiting diagnostic tests for suspected pancreatic cancer - the tests have been repeatedly pushed back because of Covid.

He now has an appointment in February, but fears the damage has already been done. 

He was only halfway through diagnostic testing before Covid struck.

He has already had his final tests pushed back from July to January, and now again. Medics think he either has pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer.

The 73-year-old dropped from 11 stone to seven in a matter of months.

He can't walk, he can't go to the bathroom unaided, and he is constantly in pain despite his high-grade painkillers.

Another issue, is that even if he does get diagnosed, doctors have told him that at his current weight, he would be unable to go through the surgery. 

Fast forward nine months, there are more than 36,000 people in hospital with Covid, many intensive care units are overwhelmed and NHS staff are being redeployed to help out. 

The knock on effect is that some hospital trusts have had no choice but to cancel some urgent cancer operations.

They really, really don't want to be doing this, they say, but without an intensive care bed for the patient to recover in, or indeed an anaesthetist or indeed theatre nurses for the surgery, they simply can't operate on their patients.

This is a huge concern, not just for the patients themselves but hospital staff too and even the boss of the NHS.

Credit: PA

Earlier this week NHS England boss Sir Simon Stevens admitted he was concerned about the impact Covid was having on cancer surgery.

He said there is a big focus on trying to ensure operations continue, but he conceded the pressure is on anaesthetists who are now having to work in critical care.

With predictions that we could see an extra 18,000 deaths in cancer patients over the next 12 months, what can be done?

I've been to film at a special cancer hub at the Royal Marsden in south west London.

It's what's called a clean hub, where cancer care and surgery can continue throughout the pandemic.

Nick Van As, Medical Director at the Royal Marsden Hospital, says the situation is 'unprecedented'

The hospital is taking in patients from other areas in London to ensure urgent operations can continue.

The medical director there described it as unprecedented and many trusts across the country have been teaming up to try and offer the same service.

The only problem is there aren't enough.

In the first two weeks of January, initial projections suggest there were 800 fewer cancer operations than usual.

That's potentially hundreds of patients, sitting at home, needing surgery who now risk getting sicker and sicker. 

Glyn Lewis says medics are gambling with his life:

Glyn Lewis is one of those patients. He has stage two prostate cancer, his surgery has been postponed and he hasn't been given a date for one in the future.

Glyn told us he feels like the NHS is gambling with his life and is now trying to raise funds so he can pay to have the procedure privately

Oncologist Pat Price told us there are thousands of patients like Glyn.

  • 'We have to save cancer patients as well as Covid patients'

These are patients who have no idea whether their cancer will spread, get worse or indeed cause them to die while they wait for surgery.

That is the tragedy of this situation.

Unlike coronavirus we may never know the true extent of cancer deaths caused by the impact of Covid.

Glyn may be fine or he may not be, but he will never be able to prove whether the postponement of his surgery affected his condition or not. 

Pat has met with NHS leaders to ask for the situation to be urgently looked at, she wants more cancer hubs set up and an urgent plan to get through the back log of cases that have been rapidly increasing.  

She says we need to save cancer patients too, not just Covid ones. Who could possibly disagree?

An NHS spokesperson told ITV News: "Although Covid has put the NHS under huge pressure, nearly 1.5 million people had cancer checks and more than 200,000 started treatment during the pandemic and the most recent complete data from November shows cancer surgery was at 94% of the level it was in 2019.

"The NHS message is clear – people should continue to come forward for routine screening or get checked if they have a worrying symptom."