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2021 was second year in a row with fewer cancer diagnoses due to Covid, report finds

1 in 12 expected cancers were not detected over the first 2 years of the pandemic, an estimated 4,320 cases.

THE NUMBER OF cancers diagnosed during the first two years of the pandemic fell by a total of 8%, according to a report from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) and funded by the Irish Cancer Society.

Preliminary data on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic indicates that the number of cancer cases diagnosed in 2021 was down 1,665 cases or 6% lower than projected. 

This is a smaller shortfall in diagnoses than the 10% observed in 2020.

The drop in cancers may have been caused by patients putting off seeking medical advice and disruptions to the health service, says the Irish Cancer Society.

Liver, pancreatic and kidney cancers appear to have been most significantly impacted by the disruptions that occurred due to Covid.

Director of advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society, Rachel Morrogh, said that the charity’s fears had been confirmed by the report.

“Cancer never went away during the pandemic but remained undetected due to a range of reasons including disruption to health services, people putting off seeking medical advice, and possibly premature death from Covid.”

“The combined number of missed cancers from 2020 and 2021 tell us that 1 in 12 expected cancers were not detected over the first 2 years of the pandemic.

“We don’t yet have the full picture of whether these cancers were diagnosed at a more advanced stage, but what we do know is that the later the stage of diagnosis, the more complex, more costly, and more invasive cancer is to treat.”

The combined number of diagnosed cancers during 2020 and 2021 was 4,320 lower than projected.

“Crucially, later diagnosis can impact a person’s chance of survival and their quality of life, so we are viewing the figures in the context that each number represents a family who tragically, may have less time with a loved one,” Morrogh continued.

“Our most recent omnibus survey from May found that 1 in 5 people have not attended a GP or hospital appointment in the last 3 months, even though they say they have needed to.”

“Roughly one-third have put off these appointments due to either the pressures in the health service or because they could not afford it.  Four in 10 adults in Ireland are not confident that they can access the health services they need at the current time.

“One in 5 are currently waiting for a health test, with 65% of these waiting longer than 4 months.”

In response to a request for comment by The Journal, the Department of Health highlighted that more cancer surgeries took place in 2022 than in 2019, following a drop in access to treatment due to the pandemic.

The National Cancer Strategy Implementation Report for 2022, launched yesterday, announced that the government had allocated €35 million in extra funding last year for cancer treatment and recruited 172 additional staff to cancer services.

The HSE stated:

“The National Cancer Control Programme Rapid Access Services offer a dedicated pathway to diagnosis for patients with suspected breast, lung and prostate cancer. These services aim to offer new patients an appointment within specified timeframes, and performance against these targets is measured on an ongoing basis.”

The NCCP has advised any person with symptoms that could indicate cancer to seek care without delay.

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