Leading cancer specialist calls for urgent measures to prevent ‘cancer catastrophe’

A leading cancer specialist has appealed to the Government to commit every resource possible to prevent a cancer catastrophe developing in the UK in the coming months. 

Prof Karol Sikora

Following the easing of the lockdown throughout most of the UK and the launch of the track and trace system, Prof Karol Sikora,the former director of the WHO’s cancer programme, called for a renewed effort to fight cancer as it emerged that new patients are still not flowing through the system despite the efforts of the NHS and the government. 

Prof Sikora, chief medical officer at Rutherford Health, told Independent Practitioner Today: ‘The easing of the lockdown will help many people who are at risk of other health conditions to get the help and treatment that they need. It is vital that we utilise the progress we have made against Covid-19 to address the acute challenges we now face in cancer care. We are still not seeing a recovery in the alarming drop in referrals over the past two months. This is losing us precious time against cancer.

‘While it is hoped that the new track and trace system will give people confidence to go to hospital to get diagnosis and treatment for potential cancers, care for downstream cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy remain distressingly low. We are inadvertently heading towards a “peak demand” which will come from July onwards, and it could completely overwhelm our cancer services’.

He warned that this simply could not be sustained.

Prof Sikora continued: ‘New cancer patients are still too scared to access GP services or go to hospitals. The easing of the lockdown and the use of the track and trace system should aim to provide all patients with the confidence that they need to access treatment. It should not be met with yet more trepidation that this could lead to a spike in infections. Whilst we must obviously be cautious, all of the evidence suggests that it is the right thing to do and other European countries have not seen a spike after easing lockdown.

Covid-free zones

‘To help give cancer patients more confidence, testing for the virus with the PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test to create “Covid-free zones” should also be expanded for cancer surgery and treatments in hospitals. This will allow us to diagnose and treat in volume once more.

‘An upward stage migration of cancer with poorer outcomes is now increasingly inevitable. We could end up in the disaster scenario whereby more people die from cancer than Covid-19 as a consequence of this pandemic.

‘We must act now to prevent that from happening. We can only do this by creating Covid-free zones and ramping up screening and diagnoses while giving people the confidence that they need to come to hospitals and contact their GPs. It is time to move away from fear of Covid-19. 

‘We also need good interaction at senior level between independent cancer networks and the NHS to increase diagnostic and treatment capacity. Many independent cancer providers, such as my own network – the Rutherford Cancer Centres – remained open throughout this crisis and assisted NHS trusts where it was possible. This provided significant relief for many cancer patients. But the big spike in cancer cases is still to come. 

‘We must work together now or risk sleepwalking straight into another public health catastrophe.’