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The comments come after a new study found that a significant number of people with potential symptoms of cancer did not seek medical help during the first six months of the pandemic.
Some did not even seek care for worrying signs like coughing up blood or an unexplained lump or bump.
Experts called for a concerted effort to remind the public that NHS services are open safely.
The NHS has already been running campaigns encouraging people to seek help for potential cancer symptoms.
It has raised particular concerns about a dip in the number of people being treated for lung cancer, warning that thousands fewer are being treated than would be expected.
A UK-wide survey found that nearly half of people who experienced possible cancer symptoms between March and August last year did not contact their GP.
Researchers from Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK examined the experiences of 7,543 people.
A total of 40.1% of participants say they had experienced one potential symptom.
And among this group, 44.8% of people did not contact their GP.
Three in 10 of those who were coughing up blood did not seek help, nor did 41% with an unexplained lump or bump or swelling.
And 58.6% of those who noticed the change in appearance of a mole – a key sign of skin cancer – did not seek help.
Worry about wasting healthcare professionals’ time, concern about putting extra strain on the NHS, not wanting to be seen as someone who makes a fuss, difficulty with access to healthcare services and worry about catching Covid-19 were reported as barriers to seeking medical help among the participants.
A policy paper from the university and Cancer Research UK highlights how there were 19% fewer urgent cancer referrals – around 350,000 – between March and November in 2020 compared with the previous year.
“From the early data we collected after the first lockdown we can see that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected public attitudes to seeking help for signs and symptoms of cancer which may translate into delayed referrals, missed tests and later-stage diagnosis,” she said.
“This suggests the Government’s message to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ – which was intended to control the spread of Covid-19 – also sent a strong message to the public that cancer can wait.
“While we recognise that measures to control the spread of Covid-19 are essential, we also need to send a strong and clear message that cancer cannot wait, that people should contact their GP with any unusual or persistent symptoms and that NHS services are open safely.”
“Catching cancer at an early stage gives the best possible chance of surviving the disease so we’re extremely concerned people have put off seeking help for cancer symptoms, even if this was for the best of intentions.
“Worryingly we don’t yet know what the pandemic’s long-term impact on cancer stage and survival will be, so it’s vital people don’t delay contacting their GP if they notice any unusual changes to their body.
“NHS staff have worked incredibly hard to manage the increased strain Covid-19 has put on an already stretched system but the government must protect cancer services if we’re to avoid the real possibility that cancer survival could go backwards for the first time in decades.”
Professor Peter Johnson, national clinical director for the NHS in England, said: “We know there are lots of reasons why people might not come forward for a check even if they have symptoms, but whether it’s a lump, bump, persistent cough, new mole or any other concerning change it’s absolutely crucial people get checked – the sooner it’s caught, the better and the NHS wants you to come forward. It could save your life.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic, with 1.7 million urgent referrals and over 228,000 people starting treatment between March and December last year.
“We continue to urge people not to put their urgent health concerns on standby and come forward to their GP if they have symptoms.
“We continue to redouble efforts to identify people with cancer and as part of our additional investment in the NHS, an extra £1 billion will be used to boost diagnosis and treatment in the year ahead.”
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