PROFESSOR ANGUS DALGLEISH: Scaremongering fuelling cancer nightmare

Institutionalised scaremongering is fuelling this cancer nightmare, writes Professor ANGUS DALGLEISH

As the second wave of Covid-19 retreats, the devastating impact on cancer patients is becoming ever more apparent.

We are now facing a savage new health crisis, one which may prove even more destructive than the pandemic itself.

Life-saving operations have been postponed, vital treatments delayed and new cases missed as screening programmes have been cut back and GPs refer fewer cases.

Latifah King (left), died of cancer last week at age of 27 while Kelly Smith, 31, (right) died from bowel cancer after her chemotherapy treatment was paused during the height of pandemic

The human cost – in terms of anxiety, pain, misery and death – are horrendous. As a fellow oncologist said to me this week: ‘This is an absolute disaster. It is going to be far worse than Covid.’ I fear he is right.

The grim reality of the burgeoning crisis is spelled out in a letter signed by 75 MPs of all parties to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – and backed by leading cancer charities – in which they warn that the current ‘Covid-induced’ backlog could lead to at least 35,000 excess deaths.

Having rightly stated that ‘cancer lives are already being lost’, the MPs argue: ‘The question is not whether we should save Covid patients or cancer patients.

‘Every life is valuable and important. We can and should be able to save both.’

Such a clear moral purpose has, tragically, disappeared in the imbalanced – and at times overblown – concentration on fighting Covid.

I certainly welcome the attempt by dozens of our Parliamentarians to inject an urgent sense of perspective into the debate.

As a cancer specialist, I see daily the paralysis that has gripped the system and I have been warning of an imminent catastrophe – often on these pages – for months. But I fear that the signatories to the letter are greatly underestimating the scale of the problem.

From the evidence I have seen, cancer referrals are down by no less than 50 per cent over the last quarter in many parts of the country, while cancer waiting times are now at their worst level on record.

Life-saving operations have been postponed, vital cancer treatments delayed and new cases missed as screening programmes have been cut back and GPs refer fewer cases (file photo)

After the first lockdown was lifted last summer, we made some progress in tackling the backlog.

But since the autumn, when piecemeal restrictions were imposed up and down the country before another national lockdown, I have witnessed an unfolding calamity as the figures for cancelled operations and waiting times again rose dramatically.

There isn’t a single NHS cancer specialist who hasn’t witnessed the suffering caused by this crisis.

In one case in which I became involved, a young man in his thirties had contacted his GP about a lump in his neck, excessive sweating and sudden weight loss – all classic symptoms of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

Against the backdrop of the Covid lockdown, the GP did not conduct a physical examination. Instead, the patient was offered a short telephone consultation and put on a course of antibiotics. Inevitably, the untreated lymphoma worsened.

By the time he was finally referred to the local cancer unit, the lymphoma had progressed to the terminal Stage 4.

Since the autumn, when piecemeal restrictions were imposed up and down the country before another lockdown, figures for cancelled operations and waiting times again rose dramatically

It was the same story with another patient who showed signs of colorectal cancer. He endured a delay of several months before getting an accurate diagnosis. Again, sadly, it was too late.

Such agonising ordeals are being repeated thousands of times nationwide.

Today the number of patients starting cancer treatment is at its lowest level for a decade, despite the huge rise in the British population.

The tragedy is that if cancer is caught early, patient outcomes can be very positive because of the huge advances made in surgery, screening, scans, and chemotherapy.

The dark days of 40 years ago, when a cancer diagnosis was likely to be a swift death sentence, have passed. Yet due to Covid hysteria we are squandering those gains.

There is another aspect to the crisis which illustrates the negative consequences of the Government’s anti-Covid propaganda.

It is the incidence of cancer patients themselves cancelling their scheduled hospital operations because they fear catching Covid.

That might seem a bizarre overreaction given that Covid – even for vulnerable people – is rarely fatal, while untreated cancer is a certain killer.

But it shows the devastating impact of what I see as institutionalised scaremongering.

Too many people with diagnosable conditions have taken the message to stay at home and protect the NHS quite literally – thereby sacrificing their own health and fuelling the cancer nightmare.

The way out of this disaster is to end the lockdown, bring back normality to the NHS, and give tens of thousands of cancer patients the care they need.

The success of the vaccination programme, accompanied by the enormous drop in Covid infections, hospital admissions and deaths, means we are well-placed to adopt this course.

To prevent more suffering and grief, action must be taken now.

Angus Dalgleish is a professor of oncology at a London teaching hospital

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