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services disrupted Up to 2,000 cancer cases may have been missed due to Covid-19


Up to 2,000 people with cancer may have been missed as a result of disruption to health services due to Covid-19, the HSE has revealed.

A fall in referrals of patients with symptoms and a drop in attendances at rapid access clinics to detect cancers of the breast, lung and prostate are a source of serious concern, according to Professor Risteárd Ó Laoide, the HSE’s director of cancer control.

He told a HSE briefing that although referrals and attendances have recovered since the first months of the pandemic there are around 371 instances of lost cancers which were not diagnosed in 2020 compared to 2019.

There is a particular worry about men with possible prostate cancer who may not have been seen.

“We have diagnosed 90pc of cancer in rapid access clinics for lung, breast and prostate compared to last year,” he said.

The clinics have found 3,114 cancers this year compared to 3,492 in 2019.

If this was extrapolated more widely across other cancers, around 2,000 cases are likely to have been missed, Prof Ó Laoide added.

The impact of the delay would be influenced by the stage of the cancer and the type of disease with prostate growing more slowly than lung cancer.

Just 65pc of prostate cancers have been diagnosed this year in the clinics compared to last year. For lung cancers it is at 96pc and for breast cancer the diagnosis level is at 100pc versus 2019.

Attendances at breast cancer clinics fell to 64pc in the early months of the pandemic.

Asked what the consequences would be, Prof Ó Laoide said it will take some years before national cancer registry figures will show cancer diagnosed and the stage of which they found.

“The number of new referrals to breast cancer clinics fell in March and April and they have now rebounded.”

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Breast cancer e-referrals by GPs to clinics are now running at 100pc for breast clinics, 91pc for lung clinics and 92pc for prostate clinics.

Attendances are now at 92pc for breast clinics having fallen to 64pc while those at lung clinics fell to 67pc and are now at 91pc and at prostate clinics they reduced to 40pc and are now at 76pc.

The number of cancers diagnosed dropped in April and May. Compared to last year the number of cases of breast cancer are at 100pc but it is down to 96pc for lung cancer and has dropped to 65pc for prostate cancer.

Some patients may have been diagnosed elsewhere such as through A&E and there can be a delay in the process of detecting prostate cancer so the figures might increase.

Prof Ó Laoide said he hoped the potential 2,000 lost cancers may appear later in the year

It came against a background of a number of difficulties posed by Covid-19, including fears people with cancer might get the virus and infection control measures which affected delivery.

Several measures have since been taken to reduce the impact the virus is having on services including seeing more people virtually. Chemotherapy delivery also suffered to 67pc and is now back to 85pc.

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