The recent, premature death of Sarah Harding, the former Girls Aloud singer, from breast cancer is another sad reminder of the collateral damage caused by the pandemic. Initially reluctant to bother her GP after finding a lump in her breast, when she did finally seek treatment the subsequent mastectomy and chemotherapy were too late to stop the cancer spreading.
Knowing that many women are suffering from the same hesitancy as her, Sarah used her memoire, completed shortly before she died, to encourage others not to fall into the same trap as her and seek treatment before it is too late.
Reluctance to seek medical help
Her experience, and that of many other women, is borne out by recent NHS England figures contained in a BBC news report, which suggested that there may be as many as 36,000 people (across a range of cancers) who have not sought a diagnosis for their symptoms. Indeed, the charity Breast Cancer Now estimates that 11,000 women may have undiagnosed breast cancer because the pandemic has made them reluctant to visit their doctor, attend a breast screening, or had their screening cancelled. The good news is that referrals and treatment for cancer have, since March 2021, risen above normal levels and there has been additional investment in radiotherapy and diagnostic equipment. Nonetheless, in spite of NHS England’s forecast that treatment levels should be back to normal by early next year, there remains a backlog of 16,000 people waiting more than two months for a cancer diagnosis. These figures make it even more imperative that anyone who finds a lump or other abnormality must see their doctor as soon as they can.
Covid-19 overwhelmed the NHS
The clearing of the medical decks last year in response to the pandemic had several repercussions. Due to the speed at which the NHS mobilised to cope with the rising tide of Covid patients, insufficient thought was given to how to deal with the inevitable consequence of medical services being directed towards just one emergency. This was unsurprising during the first wave of Covid but, as the year wore on, it was apparent that some Trusts had organised themselves better than others and had restarted treatment schedules for non-Covid patients. Nevertheless, many people were still either too anxious to enter a hospital or concerned that, by seeing a doctor, they were taking up precious medical resource that would be better deployed elsewhere. Sarah Harding’s brave decision to share what happened to her after she delayed seeing her doctor will resonate with grieving families up and down the country.
Undiagnosed cancers are the tip of the iceberg
According to Public Health England data, undiagnosed cancers represent the tip of the iceberg - thousands of people with other potentially life-threatening conditions, such as stroke and heart attack symptoms, have also failed to seek medical help. Hopefully, as things return to normal they will be persuaded to visit their doctor, albeit with the prospect of having to join a large backlog of patients. In the meantime, we will continue to hear more heart rending tales of those who die prematurely from cancer that was either misdiagnosed or diagnosed too late - an increase in medical negligence claims could be considered inevitable.
We have considerable experience of advising women who have suffered a breast cancer diagnosis and have been unhappy with the way they have been treated. The pressure on the health system has been extraordinary and the threshold for determining whether or not cancer treatment has been negligent has shifted. Nonetheless, we would be happy to have a confidential chat to explore all available options and see if we can help.