NHS cancer targets are being missed across the West Country as a leading oncologist warns “we are in the middle of the biggest cancer catastrophe" the UK has ever faced.
A report by the National Audit Office estimates ‘missing’ urgent referrals for suspected cancer during the pandemic could be as high as 740,000.
The organisation predicts that even if the NHS can adapt, the scale faced by the overall backlog is daunting.
Nick Stokes, who lives in Worton near Devizes, is about to spend his first Christmas without his wife Joy, who died of breast cancer in April.
He believes if she had been seen in person sooner by her GP, rather than over the phone because of Covid, she’d still be with him.
"To be honest, I find it very difficult to understand how people who train and want to be doctors then apparently find an excuse to not see their patients," he said.
"If she's reporting pains, surely that should be a red flag and they should be immediately seen and not pushed aside saying 'oh, we’ll talk to you over the phone,' when they can't actually see the damage that's been caused.
"After all, as my oncology team said: 'The GPs might not want to see patients, but we have to see them anyway, and we see them in a worse state of health than they would have been if they'd seen their GP in the first place'."
Whilst he hopes speaking out now will help other people, Nick Stokes knows it won’t bring his wife Joy back.
'I will remain bitter for the rest of my life'
He said: "I'm extremely bitter still, and I will remain bitter for the rest of my life. We were married for 46 years. She was only 69.
"We were expecting to have at least 10/15 years happiness together and I'm bereft. I just live on my own now and life is just not the same anymore."
Nick says he fears Joy isn’t the only person in the West Country impacted by the problem of delays in cancer treatment.
The NHS target is for 85% of cancer patients to be seen, diagnosed and begin treatment within 62 days. But the National Audit Office report for September 2021 shows that target is being missed across the region.
A campaign called #CatchUpWithCancer warns cancer treatment is facing a deadly backlog and has called for an urgent new cancer plan.
Leading oncologist and co-founder of the campaign, Professor Pat Price, said: “We are in the middle of the biggest cancer catastrophe ever to hit the NHS.
"There is a deadly cocktail of delays across the board, a regional lottery of cancer inequality and a growing cancer backlog.
Number of patients being seen, diagnosed and starting cancer treatment within 62 days
"Look past the people who are telling you that it's all all right and it's under control, it's not. We need somebody to take full responsibility for this and get a radical new cancer plan that is supported by investment that is ring-fenced for cancer.
"We need to do that urgently and we need to get on with this. Otherwise, it gets worse every day and more patients are dying every day, and that matters."
An NHS spokesperson said: "Treating more than half a million patients in hospital for Covid, as well as delivering a world-leading vaccination programme, has inevitably had an impact on some routine and non-urgent care, yet since the pandemic begun the NHS has performed millions of elective procedures and over 450,000 people have started treatment for cancer.
“NHS staff are now pulling out all the stops to recover elective activity levels, making good use of additional resources to open new surgical hubs and diagnostic centres, develop innovative ways of working and perform more operations, tests, checks and scans, so anyone who is concerned about their health should come forward so the NHS can help you."