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

origin 1College students hold umbrellas to form a pink ribbon formation during a breast cancer awareness campaign in Chennai. ©AFP

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

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

“The sooner cancer is caught, the easier it is to treat and the better the person’s chances are of surviving the disease. The 5-year survival for breast cancer, for example, is 94% in stage I and only 19% in stage IV,” explained Averil Power, chief executive officer of the Irish Cancer Society.

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But the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on how people have been able to access their primary care physicians, causing backlogs and potentially lethal waiting lists.

For example, one year into the pandemic, there were one million fewer cancer screenings in England than a year earlier, according to Cancer Research UK. And there were ten times as many people waiting six months or more for diagnostic tests.

“One in 10 expected cancers have gone undiagnosed”

A similar situation has been reported in the rest of Europe. According to Power, “one in 10 expected cancers went undiagnosed” during the first year of the pandemic in Ireland.

And the consequences were devastating. Earlier this month, the group warned that around 14% of cancer patients are now being diagnosed in Irish emergency rooms.

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

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

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

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

Calls for more childhood cancer screening

Some groups have historically been left behind when it comes to cancer screening, 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 don’t initially screen for cancer when young people start showing symptoms. That’s because early signs of cancer can sometimes mimic the symptoms of many common childhood illnesses.

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“Childhood cancer is a rare disease that can initially present with the same symptoms as other common childhood diseases,” Rodriguez said.

“It is usually masked as a childhood illness 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.”

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