“Don’t wait until it’s too late” say cancer doctors

Doctors in Cornwall are concerned that people with cancer symptoms are not coming forward due to the coronavirus pandemic, following new findings that suggest four in ten people are too concerned about being a burden on the NHS to seek help from their GP.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has warned that delays in getting treatment due to coronavirus fears pose a long term risk to people’s health.

Dr Bryson Pottinger, clinical lead consultant at Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, says there has been a 50 percent reduction in cancer referrals by doctors across the county. GPs are reporting far fewer people than usual coming forward with the signs and symptoms of cancer.

Nearly all of Cornwall’s GP practices offer consultations through an online platform now, which allows patients to access services from their smartphone, tablet or computer.  All GP practices in Cornwall can now offer video consultations too.

If, following a phone or online consultation, a GP determines they need to see someone face-to-face, they will give their patients instructions about when and where to attend so they can be seen safely.

In order to limit exposure and to keep patients and staff safe, GP practices in Cornwall are setting up dedicated sites where patients who have, or may have, COVID-19 can be assessed and treated for the virus and other conditions away from other patients.

GPs are using protective equipment (such as masks) when they do see people face-to-face to minimise the risk of transmission. 

John Renninson, clinical director of the Peninsula Cancer Alliance, said: “The best chance of successful treatment for cancer is through early detection. GPs are able to assess over the phone and by video and if necessary, they can plan for you to safely be seen face-to-face.

“Hospitals are continuing to offer tests and treatment for cancer. Social distancing measures are in place to keep patients and staff safe when they do come in for their tests.”  Dr Renninson added: “The type of assessment may change and it may take slightly longer than normal, but this is still better than delaying until after the pandemic.”

Hospitals are putting measures in place to ensure their cancer assessment services are safe for patients to attend, where this is necessary. Hospitals in Cornwall are moving some cancer services off-site or are increasing their use of telephone and video consultations so they can see people remotely.

Mr Renninsons advice is: “If you have symptoms that are new, persistent, concerning or progressive, contact your GP online via their website or on the telephone for an initial assessment. Once you have contacted your GP, you can discuss safely attending hospital and when is the appropriate time.

“Delays in visiting a doctor with a lump or unusual bleeding could mean a worse outcome. Some cancers are particularly time-sensitive meaning that relatively short delays can have a big impact on long-term outcomes. With other cancers, a longer delay may affect the outcome very little. Patients can discuss with their GP the potential risks and together balance the risks of exposure versus the risks of delay.”

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “While NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to deal with coronavirus they have also worked hard to ensure that patients who don’t have COVID-19 can safely access essential services.

“So whether you or loved one have the symptoms or a heart attack or stroke, are a parent worried about their child or have concerns about conditions such as cancer you should seek help in the way you always would.

“Ignoring problems can have serious consequences - now or in the future.”

National cancer charity Macmillan Cancer Support is also warning that cancer must not become the ‘forgotten C’ and anyone experiencing symptoms should not delay contacting their GP.

Dr Rosie Loftus, chief medical officer at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Early GP referrals are vital in improving outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer. These are exceptional circumstances for health services across the UK, but getting people diagnosed with minimal delays must continue to happen. Anyone with concerning symptoms shouldn’t hesitate to contact their GP, who can discuss the most appropriate steps to take considering the current risks. The NHS is still committed to ensuring all essential and urgent cancer treatment continues.

“Comprehensive information and support, including our latest guidance and advice on the impact of coronavirus on cancer care, is available on www.macmillan.org.uk/coronavirus and our online community continues to provide invaluable emotional and peer support. The free Macmillan Support Line is open 7 days a week between 8am- 8pm on 0808 808 00 00.”