Hospitals fear cancer avalanche as record 230k patients sent for checks

Jacquie Beltrao reveals that her latest scans show no cancer

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A leaked email, which was sent from a London hospital in response to staff from other centres requesting diagnostic imaging appointments, reveals it was fighting to cope with patient demand. It states other hospitals it has contacted for help “on many occasions” are experiencing the same problem. And it warns many patients needing diagnosis are “very young” and could face “irreversible outcomes”.

The email, sent earlier this month and copied to 18 NHS staff and managers, states: “We are doing the best we can to increase our capacity taking into account resources available.

“We have been working extended hours … to meet the high post-Covid avalanche of referrals. We have approached our collaborators on many occasions but none have additional capacity to provide services for our patients. In fact those centres have been also struggling with their internal capacity which is growing exponentially.”

It concludes: “I share all your frustration and anxiety related to the long waiting list for the imaging for your cancer patients as delays can lead to irreversible outcomes and many of those patients are very young.”

Latest NHS England figures show a record 230,000 people were referred for cancer checks in March. Experts have blamed the backlog on fearful patients staying at home, difficulties in accessing services in lockdowns and disruption as the staff were redeployed to tackle the pandemic.

Professor Pat Price, a senior cancer consultant and founder of Catch up with Cancer campaign, said: “This is the beginning of the surge of the backlog entering the NHS and hard-working staff cannot deal with this cancer crisis unless we invest in the tools they need. We predicted this.

“The Government is boasting it is wonderful people have now come forward but the problem is we can’t give them timely screening. As a result some sadly will die.”

Professor Karol Sikora, a leading cancer specialist and former adviser to the World Health Organization on cancer care said: “Many managers are trying to save the skins of the politicians and only giving the good news about cancer. The NHS is a wonderful organisation but it cannot cope with a crisis as this email shows.

“The first thing the NHS and politicians have to do is be honest. It is dishonest to say it is coping well.”

Some 232,084 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in March, compared with 183,603 in March 2020 – a rise of 26 percent.

Between March last year and March this year, 4.6 million fewer diagnostic tests were carried out in England compared with pre-pandemic levels, says a report by Cancer Research UK.

NHS England figures reveal 5.12 million people were waiting for hospital treatment in March. Mother-of-two Nicole Freeman, who had half her tongue removed after being diagnosed with oral cancer, says she is lucky to be alive after her GP could not see her in person.

Ms Freeman, 27, from York, whose cancer has spread to her neck, was four months pregnant when she first noticed a sore at the back of her tongue in November last year.

She claims she sent her doctor photos of the sore five times as the lump grew, but was told it was nothing to worry about and was recommended pain relief and mouthwash.

But when hospital staff noticed she was struggling to talk when she was giving birth in March, the “ulcer” was diagnosed as oral cancer days later. Doctors told her she would have been dead by the summer if it was left any longer.

She has had the tumour on her tongue removed and now has to travel to Leeds for daily chemotherapy.

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