Is COVID-19 the new Big C?

How COVID-19 has impacted cancer treatment in the UK.

Cancer Research UK confirms that there were approximately 165,000 deaths annually from cancer in the UK between 2015 and 2017. In 2015, it was estimated that 38% of those deaths were preventable (Cancer Research UK, 2020). Since then, society has been dealt an earth-shattering blow in the form of COVID-19 which has not only had a direct impact on each individual’s life, but has overshadowed cancer services and treatment.

For most of us, our lives have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But for terminal cancer patients, their impending death has not been halted and may in fact have been brought forward as they see their treatments being put on hold. Many of us are temporarily missing out on seeing friends and family, going to restaurants and pubs, and going on holiday. Yet, cancer patients who have missed an early diagnosis or have had their life-saving treatment suspended will suffer the worst repercussions and are missing out on their futures.

Professor Pat Price, Chair of Action Radiography, acknowledges how “[i]t is not a great time for having cancer at the moment” (Panorama: Britain’s Cancer Crisis, 2020). Arguably, there is no good time for having cancer but now is particularly bad leaving us to question whether the Big C has been redefined. Professor Mark Lawler, Scientific Director DATA-CAN (Health Data Research UK), estimates that in a worst-case scenario there would be 35,000 excess deaths from cancer due to COVID-19 (Panorama: Britain’s Cancer Crisis, 2020) within a year (BBC, 2020).

Not only are cancer patients at higher risk due to a weakened immune system, (Cancer Research UK, 2020) but screening has largely been paused across the UK for not being conducive to the social distancing guidelines set out by the government. As a result, the number of referrals decreased significantly, (Roberts, 2020; BBC, 2020) due to less patients raising concerns with their GP, combined with GPs being fearful of making referrals due to the risk of exposing their existing patients to COVID-19 in hospitals (Hiom, 2020; BBC, 2020). Clinicians, now more than ever, are having to conduct cost-benefit analyses and assessment of which of the Big C’s we should be most fearful of, and those whose treatment has been most affected.

For some, the ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ governmental message has been taken too literally or misconstrued, given that cancer does not apply its brakes to make room for our battle against the coronavirus pandemic. Undiagnosed cancer patients who did not seek medical intervention may have protected the NHS and saved the lives of others, but have put their own lives at risk due to the grand entrance of the new Big C: COVID-19.  

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