Around 10,000 fewer breast cancer patients have started treatment in England over the last year, a charity has warned.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) said that a “huge effort” is still needed to clear the cancer backlog caused by the coronavirus pandemic to help avoid “preventable cancer deaths”.
The charity estimates that around 38,000 fewer people started treatment for all cancer types in England in the last year.
This includes 10,600 fewer breast cancer patients who have not started their treatment.
Both the pausing of breast cancer screening temporarily when the Covid-19 crisis began, and people putting off seeking care, could have contributed to the change in the figures.
CRUK said that breast cancer deaths reached an all-time low before the pandemic, but it raised concerns that this progress could “slow”.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “These figures are worrying, and we could see progress slow over the coming years as the true effect of the pandemic is revealed.
“The NHS is showing signs of recovery, but a huge effort is still needed to clear the cancer backlog as quickly as possible to help avoid preventable cancer deaths as a consequence of the pandemic.
“Government must make sure there is enough funding for staff, diagnostic equipment and the research needed to improve cancer care across the UK in the long term, so cancer patients are given the best chance of surviving their disease.”
Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Considering the huge disruption to cancer services, sadly these figures are not surprising. And we’re seeing the impact of effectively pausing breast screening which detects almost a third of breast cancer cases.
“But it’s important to remember that cancer screening is for people without symptoms, so it’s vital that if people notice anything usual for them, please don’t wait for screening – get in touch with your GP. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, catching it early gives the best chance of survival.”
Cancer services in England have been rebounding from the effects caused by the pandemic.
More than 200,000 people were referred for cancer checks in April following a record high the month before, according to NHS England figures.
And treatment rates for cancer are back to usual levels, with nearly 25,000 people starting treatment in April – an increase of more than 4,000 since the same time period last year.
An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS is working hard to treat more cancer patients than ever before and the latest figures show that treatment levels are now back to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 200,000 people referred for cancer checks in April following a record high the month before, and more than nine in 10 people started treatment within one month.
“Breast screening services are open with extra clinics put in place and thousands of invites being sent every month, so if you are invited please book your appointment.”