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Long waiting lists and late detection: How COVID-19 is still affecting cancer screening in Europe

College students hold umbrellas to make a formation of pink ribbon during a breast cancer awareness campaign in Chennai.
College students hold umbrellas to make a formation of pink ribbon during a breast cancer awareness campaign in Chennai. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Kal Berjikian
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During the first year of the pandemic, an estimated one in 10 people with cancer in Ireland were not diagnosed.

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Breast cancer pins, thin moustaches in November, rotting teeth on cigarette packs and images of black lungs on display in classrooms - cancer awareness campaigns are a common sight across Europe.

One of the main reasons why these images are now ingrained in many people’s minds is simple: early cancer detection can save lives.

“The earlier cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat, and the greater the person’s chances of surviving the disease. The 5-year survival for breast cancer for example is 94% at stage I and only 19% at stage IV,” explained Averil Power, the CEO of the Irish cancer society.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on how people have been able to access their GPs, causing life-threatening backlogs and waiting lists.

For example, a year into the pandemic, there were one million fewer screenings for cancer in England compared to the previous year, according to Cancer Research UK. And there were ten times more people waiting for half a year or more for diagnostic tests.

'One in 10 expected cancers were not diagnosed'

A similar situation has been reported in the rest of Europe. According to Power, “one in 10 expected cancers were not diagnosed” during the first year of the pandemic in Ireland.

And the consequences have been devastating. Earlier this month, the group warned around 14% of cancer patients are now being diagnosed in Ireland’s emergency rooms.

And over 100,000 patients are reportedly still waiting more than three months for vital scans.

During the first year of the pandemic, there was also a similar drop in cancer-related funding. Between 2020 and 2021, there was a 9% decrease in the amount of funding for cancer research compared to the previous two years, according to the National Cancer Research Institute in the UK.

And the group added that one of the biggest sectors impacted in that figure was cancer prevention, with bladder cancer, cancer of the small intestine and neuroblastoma taking the biggest hit.

Lung cancer, breast cancer, leukaemia, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer were not affected.

Calls for more screening for childhood cancer

Some groups have historically been left behind when it comes to cancer screenings, regardless of the pandemic.

According to Paula Rodriguez, who works with Asociación Galbán, a group that supports families with children with cancer in Spain, doctors do not initially screen for cancer when young people start to show symptoms. That is because the first signs of cancer can sometimes mimic the symptoms of many common childhood illnesses. 

“Childhood cancer is a rare disease that may initially manifest itself with the same symptoms as other common childhood illnesses,” Rodriguez said. 

“It is usually masked by childhood illnesses and is often difficult to diagnose. This leads to a problem and in many cases, the disease is detected in very advanced stages, which worsens the child's prognosis.”

She added that regular screening for childhood cancer is a “dream” that one day may be possible.

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