Beating bowel cancer together

People with bowel cancer facing poorer survival rates due to COVID-19

New research published today shows people with bowel cancer face poorer survival rates due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic to screening, diagnosis and treatment services.

The research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and Carnall Farrar, a healthcare management consultancy, has revealed that thousands of lives may be lost to cancer because 250,000 patients in England were not referred to hospital for urgent checks during the crisis.

The study examined data from NHS England and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to estimate the effect of COVID-19 on cancer survival rates, and found five-year survival rates for people diagnosed with bowel cancer this year are set to fall from 58.4% to 51.6%.

Researchers identified that the pandemic has disrupted screening, diagnosis, and treatment services across cancer types, with findings showing that:

  • between April and June of this year, GPs made 336,242 urgent cancer referrals in England, compared to 594,060 in the same period last year, resulting in a 43% decrease
  • over 210,000 people a week were affected by the halting of cancer screening, diagnostic testing such as CT, MRI and endoscopy services, which decreased by up to 70%
  • treatment for cancer fell by up to 40%
  • as a result, five-year survival rates for those diagnosed with cancer this year are set to fall from 16.2% to 15.4% for lung cancer, 85% to 83.5% for breast cancer, and from 58.4% to 51.6% for colorectal cancer. The researchers noted these cancer outcomes would be equivalent to those in 2017, 2012 and 2010, respectively.

Dr Lisa Wilde, Director of Research and External Affairs at Bowel Cancer UK said: “The pandemic has had an enormous impact on bowel cancer services and diagnostics, and it’s shocking to see the reduction in five-year survival rates will return us to those last seen a decade ago.

“While the NHS has given a firm commitment to restoring cancer services, including endoscopy capacity and bowel screening, this will be cold comfort to those who have faced disruption to screening, diagnosis and treatment in recent months.

“More than 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year, and this perfect storm of fewer GP referrals, pauses in screening, and delays and cancellation to diagnostics and treatments, will inevitably lead to an increase in bowel cancer cases in the future.” 

The study makes reference to the phase three letter published by NHS England on 31 July, stating that while these plans are necessary and recognise cancer as a priority area for recovery, several challenges still need to be addressed for cancer services to be fully restored. These include scale and urgency of the capacity response, shortage of available capacity in the NHS and different levels of infection throughout the UK. Delays in gaps in data and insufficient funding allocated to achieve what is urgently required also need to be tackled.

Researchers also proposed several recommendations to achieve rapid recovery and adequate restoration of cancer services, which outline the need for a large surge in activity and capacity.

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