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Don’t let coronavirus stop cancer check, urges new dad fighting leukaemia

PUBLISHED: 12:25 07 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:25 07 July 2020

James Barham is undergoing chemotherapy at the NNUH after being diagnosed with an aggresive form of leukemia. Photo: James Barham

James Barham is undergoing chemotherapy at the NNUH after being diagnosed with an aggresive form of leukemia. Photo: James Barham

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Coronavirus has caused a collapse in the number of patients diagnosed with cancer, leading to fears thousands of people will get help too late.

Sue Down, consultant breast surgeon at the James Paget hospital. The hospital has released videos reassuring people it is safe to return. Photo: James Paget Hospital/YouTubeSue Down, consultant breast surgeon at the James Paget hospital. The hospital has released videos reassuring people it is safe to return. Photo: James Paget Hospital/YouTube

The number of people starting cancer treatment plummeted by almost 40pc in April at Norfolk’s three hospitals, compared to the month before. It fell from 352 in March to 220 in April, according to NHS England figures.

A national study estimated there could be up to 35,000 more deaths from cancer because of delays getting treatment during coronavirus.

The study from Health Data Research UK said this was down to hospitals cancelling treatments, as well as patients being wary of going to their GP.

James Barham, from Drayton, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in May, said he initially delayed going to his doctor because of the pandemic.

Cancer referrals to the NNUH fell by 40pc during the pandemic. Picture: NNUHCancer referrals to the NNUH fell by 40pc during the pandemic. Picture: NNUH

The 31-year-old father was told he could have died within weeks, had he not started chemotherapy at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH).

“It wasn’t until I was finally diagnosed with leukaemia that I realised how much sooner I should have gone to the doctors,” he said.

“I’d been fairly unwell for a while but due to Covid-19 I didn’t want to go to the doctors as my wife was pregnant and not far off due date.

“I convinced myself that it would pass and I’d be OK, but eventually I became so unwell that I had to go to hospital and was quickly admitted.

Cancer charity Big C urged anyone feeling unwell to not delay getting help. Picture: Getty ImagesCancer charity Big C urged anyone feeling unwell to not delay getting help. Picture: Getty Images

“Very quickly the concerns I had surrounding Covid-19 were put to rest as both the care I received and the precautions taken at the hospital were second to none.

He added: “I would urge anyone feeling unwell but worried about Covid-19 to go and get checked out,

“I was told I only had weeks left had I not started treatment, so the alternative could have been much worse.

“My treatment couldn’t be going any better so far, and I’m now back at home for a short time enjoying my family.”

The James Paget Hospital in Gorleston has released a series of videos to reassure people it is safe to return.

Sue Down, a consultant breast surgeon at the hospital, said a third of breast cancer was normally detected by routine screening, but this had been paused during the pandemic.

The hospital’s chief operating officer, Joanne Segasby, said there had been a 50pc drop in cancer referrals but this was now returning to normal levels.

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She said: “A number of new measures have been put in place – including video consultations and separating our hospital into Covid and non-Covid areas to provide safe care for patients when they come in.”

The NNUH and James Paget both kept urgent cancer treatment going during the pandemic by using private hospitals.

But some patients complained to watchdog Healthwatch Norfolk that treatments had been delayed.

“Conditions such as cancer do not take a break because there is a pandemic,” one patient wrote.

Another said: “Urgent referrals for cancer diagnostics not happening quickly enough.”

A meeting of the James Paget board in June said factors behind a drop in treatment included PPE availability, “workforce challenges” and “public perception regarding accessing the hospital”.

Norfolk’s three hospitals also saw a drop in April in the percentage of cancer patients who started treatment within the target of 62 days after being referred.

At the NNUH, provisional figures for April showed 54pc started treatment within 62 days.

The hospital’s board papers said this was “hugely impacted” by coronavirus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, 76pc were seen within the target time in April and at the James Paget it was 65pc.

A spokesman for Norfolk and Waveney NHS said: “Throughout Covid-19, urgent cancer services and chemotherapy treatments have been running.

“Hospitals and community services are working hard to reinstate cancer services to pre-Covid levels safely following stringent PPE and safety guidance.”

Chris Cobb, NNUH chief operating officer, said: “We have seen an almost 40 per cent reduction in two-week wait cancer referrals since the start of April and we’d encourage anyone who has concerns about cancer symptoms to not delay seeking medical help and to contact their GP immediately.”

This fall is mirrored across the country, according to research shared with BBC’s Panorama programme.

Clinical oncologist Professor Pat Price told the BBC that in some hospitals radiotherapy machines were “lying idle which could have saved lives”.

She said: “We are looking at a huge number of unavoidable deaths and we need to address it because there are patients we can cure and we want to get on with it, but we haven’t been allowed.”

Dr Melanie Pascale, director of operations at Norfolk cancer charity Big C, said: “We would strongly urge anyone who notices unusual changes to their body, or experiences symptoms, to make an appointment with their GP without delay.”


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