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November 6th 2020

Medical Negligence

Is NHS better prepared to support cancer patients as we enter second national lockdown and Covid-19 cases rise again?

Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Is NHS better prepared to support cancer patients as we enter second national lockdown and Covid-19 cases rise again?

It feels like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which ran throughout October, was more important than ever in 2020.

It feels like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which ran throughout October, was more important than ever in 2020.

The month started with Breast Cancer Now estimating that nearly one million women in the UK had missed potentially lifesaving NHS breast screening this year due to COVID-19.

The charity estimated that around 986,000 women missed their mammograms due to breast screening programmes being paused in March, as the country’s hospitals faced the prospects of being overrun by coronavirus infections.

Most worryingly of all, the charity said it anticipated that around 8,600 people could have been left living with undetected breast cancer.

During the month, our client Lawrence Alphonse bravely shared the heartbreaking story of how he witnessed his young, vibrant, outgoing happy daughter Waverlea slowly fade away and die of breast cancer after a 10-month delay in diagnosis.

Given we are now seven months into this pandemic and hospital admissions are once again on the rise, her story is particularly powerful and poignant.

Having sought tests after discovering a lump at the age of just 25, Waverlea was firstly reassured by specialists that all was fine and sent home and told not to worry.

However, worry she did, returning to her doctor and demanding further tests.

Ten months after her initial concerns, her worst fears were confirmed as she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.

Despite having a double mastectomy, lumpectomy and almost total lymph node clearance following chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiotherapy, the cancer returned and she was diagnosed in October 2018 with recurrent breast cancer in both breasts.

The cancer spread and she was then also diagnosed with lung cancer, losing her life last August, aged 29.

Is Government better prepared to support cancer patients in second Covid-19 wave?

Waverlea’s family wanted to use Breast Cancer Awareness Month to make people aware of how a 10 month delay in diagnosis cost her the chance of beating cancer and survival.

They urged other young women not to allow their health concerns to be too easily dismissed by doctors, but also wanted to send a clear and powerful message to the NHS and hospitals across the country of the potential cost to lives of any further delays in cancer testing and treatment.

They certainly did just that as her story was covered in the national media.

During the month many other families have bravely shared their stories across the country.

People also once again came together to raise funds for potentially life-saving research through the annual ‘Wear it Pink’ day on October 23.

However, we are now again faced with talk of hospitals running out of spaces due to rising Covid-19 admissions, and the uncertainties brought as we head into a second national lockdown.

It is a worrying time, but hopefully, Breast Cancer Awareness Month came at just the right time to remind people that cancer cannot simply but put second to Covid.

The Government has to find a way of managing the impact of Covid-19 and ensuring the substantial backlog of cancer appointments and scans is cleared quickly.

It must also focus on ensuring those needing appointments and tests in the months to come are able to access them much quicker than has been the case so far this year.

The law states that everyone has the right to access healthcare when they need it, and that means the Government is duty bound to a have an effective healthcare framework in place to protect lives.

Cancer Research UK said that during the first Covid-19 wave, around 350,000 fewer people with suspected cancer symptoms were urgently referred than normal in the UK.

The charity also reported that in England between March and July 2020, there was a 39% drop in the seven key diagnostic tests used to diagnose cancer (endoscopies including flexi-sigmoidoscopy, cystoscopy, and gastroscopy, CT scans, ultrasound, and MRI. This was equivalent to around 3.2 million fewer tests compared to the same period last year.

Thousands of extra lives are already at extra risk from the first Covid-19 wave.

It is to be hoped the Government has a plan in place to ensure cancer is not again a secondary consideration to Covid, through what could be some difficult months ahead.

  • Most breast cancers (80%) occur in women over the age of 50, and the older you are, the higher your risk. Men can also get breast cancer, but this is rare. Most men who get breast cancer are aged over 50.

The NHS website advises people to see a GP if they notice any of these symptoms:

  • A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts;
  • Discharge from either nipple, which may be streaked with blood;
  • A lump or swelling in either armpit;
  • Dimpling on the skin of the breasts;
  • A rash on or around the nipple;
  • A change in the appearance of the nipple, such as becoming sunken into the breast.

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