Data from Cancer Research UK conducted at the end of March reveals that in some areas of the UK, cancer referrals dropped by 75 per cent at the peak of the pandemic, mainly because people weren’t coming forward with symptoms and were instead staying home to protect the NHS.
Cancer Research UK also detailed that lung cancer referrals were down 50 per cent this year – likely because the symptoms are so similar to that of Covid-19 (a persistent cough, breathlessness and lack of energy), that people were wrongly assuming they had symptoms of the virus and so staying home to help prevent its spread.
Mis-diagnosis of lung cancer as Covid-19
“Right now, there's a tendency in society – and possibly healthcare – to presume respiratory symptoms are Covid-19 related. Of course, there's definitely an overlap between the two,” said Dr Neil Smith, GP Lead for Cancer Research UK. “I also think people cough nowadays and get frightened and think they can't go to work. It's a natural inclination to want to protect people.”
However, catching lung cancer, as well as other forms of cancer, early is critical to increasing a person’s chances of survival. As Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, noted: 'It's absolutely essential that cancer services continue to restore and recover during the winter period, because otherwise we're in danger of replacing one health crisis with another in time.'
Lack of essential cancer referrals on a global level
Back in June, the World Health Organization released a statement detailing that Covid-19 restrictions were severely impacting the prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide.
“Many people who need treatment for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have not been receiving the health services and medicines they need since the Covid-19 pandemic began,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “It’s vital that countries find innovative ways to ensure that essential services for NCDs continue, even as they fight Covid-19.”
Telemedicine to help solve the ‘cancer backlog’
WHO reported that among the countries reporting service disruptions, globally 58 per cent of countries are now using telemedicine to replace in-person consultations – and a paper published in The Lancet also advocated that telemedicine could well hold the key to solving the ‘cancer backlog’.
With many insurers and assistance providers now including telemedicine offerings as part of their international private medical insurance (IPMI) policies, they could well be leading the way in helping individuals get the screenings that they need to help fight the growing number of cancer cases. But distinguishing between Covid-19 symptoms and similar cancer symptoms will be an incredibly important step in ensuring that these individuals receive the appropriate care.