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Northern Ireland could face 'a cancer epidemic' as virus impacts vital patient care, says expert


A member of the public wearing a face mask walks
through a deserted Belfast city centre yesterday.

A member of the public wearing a face mask walks through a deserted Belfast city centre yesterday.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

A member of the public wearing a face mask walks through a deserted Belfast city centre yesterday.

Northern Ireland could be facing a "cancer epidemic" as a legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have warned.

A Queen's University professor said many cases could be diagnosed at a later stage, making them more difficult to treat.

It comes as health officials here revealed there had been a near 70% drop in red flag referrals this year.

Professor Mark Lawler from QUB collaborated on research with the University of Split in Croatia and King's College London.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that efforts to fight the pandemic have had an unintended negative impact on cancer patients.

"Obviously we have to try and find a balance in fighting the pandemic, but we need to remember that cancer is a very common disease," he said.

Published in the European Journal of Cancer, the research said 3.7m people are diagnosed with cancer every year across Europe with 1.9m deaths.

Prof Lawler said the figures could rise significantly without action.

"What we're worried about is seeing delays in urgent cases, diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy. That's going to have an effect on both diagnosing and treating cancer. Our focus is always about diagnosing the cancer as early as possible."

Prof Lawler encouraged those with cancer symptoms, such as abnormal bleeding or new lumps in the body, not to put off visiting their GP.

"If we don't do that, we're worried that down the road we'll see greatly increased diagnosis of cancer at a later stage when it will be much more difficult to treat," he added.

"We also need good data to plan for government policy to make sure those services can deliver."

Cancer Focus NI CEO Roisin Foster agreed the current situation would create serious problems in the future.

The charity is still providing family support and counselling despite struggling with a 70% drop in income.

"We are hearing of mothers travelling alone for treatment as their partners are at home with school-aged children and the family is otherwise socially isolating," she said.

"This, combined with suspending screening programmes, means that we will be storing up considerable problems for the future - late diagnosis, more complex treatment, psychological impacts, impacts on families including bereavement - and all at a time when charities like ours are facing real concerns about our future. We fully appreciate the impact of coronavirus is to the forefront of everyone's mind. But sadly cancer has not disappeared.

"We would urge people to be all the more vigilant about the signs and symptoms of cancer and contact your GP if you have concerns."

Meanwhile, new figures from the Public Health Agency have shown that cancer services in Northern Ireland have seen a 60-70% drop in red flag referrals this year.

In January, a report suggested that red flag referrals alone accounted for 28% of all cancer diagnosis here in recent years.

The PHA said there has also been a significant drop in those attending Emergency Departments with serious issues like suspected strokes and heart attacks.

They said most services are still open with robust infection procedures in place.

Patients with non Covid-19 symptoms are assessed in separate areas to minimise the risk of infection.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: "I understand that some people may think it is best not to attend their GP or ED when they know the service is under such pressure and I recognise people are making every effort to allow the health services to focus on Covid-19.

"However, if people are feeling unwell or worried about their symptoms, they should seek medical advice without delay."

Belfast Telegraph