The first wave of the pandemic significantly reduced public willingness to approach general practitioners about possible cancer symptoms, it has been claimed.
A new survey has found that nearly half of those with potential symptoms did not contact their GP during the first wave last year. The findings reinforce concerns that the pandemic has led to delays in treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses.
About a third of respondents said they did not believe a surgery or a hospital would be safe. Researchers said that even many people with very disturbing symptoms did not seek help. The survey, undertaken by Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK, involved more than 7,500 people and found a very large number – 40% – reporting having experienced at least one potential symptom of cancer. In 44% of cases the patient did not take the symptom to their GP, the survey found.
It found that 30% of those coughing up blood did not seek help as did 41% of those with unexplained lumps or swelling and 56% of those who spotted changes in appearances of a mole. About 72% said they were worried there would be delays in tests and investigations because of the pandemic. Just 15% cited concern about wasting the time of doctors as a reason for delay while 12% cited concerns about putting extra strain on the NHS. Another 12% said they did not “want to make a fuss” but just 4.8% said that remote consultations were a barrier.
Researcher Professor Kate Brain said: “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. 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.”
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “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.”