There were over a thousand fewer new cases of bowel, breast and lung cancers diagnosed in Wales in 2020, compared to 2019, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Cancer this month. This is equivalent to a 15 per cent reduction in the diagnosis of these common cancers.
Researchers analysed NHS Wales cancer data on diagnoses of bowel, breast and lung cancers to help understand what happened to cancer diagnoses in Wales during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The team used anonymised, individual-level, population-scale data held in the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage (SAIL) Databank; an accredited, Trusted Research Environment housed within Population Data Science at Swansea University Medical School.
Key findings from the study include:
- Largest reduction in new cases occurred for breast (19 per cent) and bowel (17 per cent) cancers
- Early-stage breast cancer was particularly affected, reducing by 42 per cent
- Cases of early and late stages of bowel cancer reduced by about a quarter to a third each
- Breast cancer cases diagnosed via screening decreased by 48 per cent. However, bowel cancer cases detected through screening fell by only 13 per cent
- Diagnoses after GP referral for urgent suspected cancer decreased the most for bowel and lung cancer.
One of the paper’s authors, Professor Mark Lawler, Scientific Director of DATA-CAN, the UK’s Health Data Research Hub for Cancer and Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s University Belfast, explains some of the reasons behind the reductions,
“The reduction in diagnoses of bowel, breast and lung cancers during 2020 were partly due to people not seeking medical advice for symptoms because they were worried about catching COVID and were following the necessary stay at home messages. There were also changes to accessing screening, GP and hospital services during 2020. The monthly pattern of diagnosis numbers and the healthcare route to diagnosis did vary over 2020 coinciding with changes in access to health services and lockdowns.
“This is the first national population-level study of its kind to quantify in detail the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer diagnosis. It emphasises the power and importance of data intelligence in capturing the impact of the pandemic. Health data analysis, like our study, plays an important role in helping to plan future health services and helps mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic on cancer patients and services. Make no mistake – data really can help save lives.”
Although the pandemic, along with public health and healthcare responses to it, has lessened, the study still suggests that alterations to healthcare routes to diagnosis, increases in later-stage diagnoses and an increase in the number of undiagnosed patients with new cancers can occur. This is why it is so important that people seek medical advice if they notice any concerning symptoms (lump on the breast, blood in urine or faeces, difficulty swallowing, unexpected weight loss) and continue to take up the offer of screening appointments when invited.