Nearly a quarter of a million women are late for their cervical smear tests due to the coronavirus pandemic, official figures suggest.
Some 3.2 million women have been screened for cancer in the past 12 months to the end of March 2020, down 240,000 from the 3.43 million screened last year.
The NHS closed the majority of its services in early March to free up beds for an influx of Covid-19 patients when the crisis began to escalate. This means that millions of vital tests, appointments and operations have been delayed.
When detected at an early stage, the five-year survival rate for women with invasive cervical cancer is 92%. But, if it spreads to surrounding tissues or organs, that number is reduced to 56%.
Even when services restarted over the summer, many patients were reluctant to use the NHS for fear of catching Covid or being a burden on health services.
The NHS encourages all women aged 25 to 49 to be screened for cervical cancer every three years, and all women aged 50 to 64 every five years.
About 3,200 women are diagnosed with the disease each year, or eight per day, according to Cancer Research UK.
The number of women screened for cervical cancer in the year to March 2020 was 3.23 million, down 240,000 from the previous year. (photo in stock)
The NHS report released today found 4.63 million women had been invited for checks, the second highest number since 2010.
The lowest turnout for checks was in Kensington and Chelsea, London, where less than 50 percent of women had attended for cervical tests.
It was followed by Westminster, with 50.5%, and Camden, with 53.9%, both of which are also in the capital.
WHAT IS COLD CANCER?
Cervical cancer affects the lining of the lower part of the uterus.
The most common symptom is unusual bleeding, such as between periods, during sex, or after menopause, but other signs may include:
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal discharge that smells bad
- Pain in the pelvis
The causes can include:
- Age – more than half of those affected are under 45
- HPV infection – which affects most people at some point in their lives
- Smoking – responsible for 21 percent of cases
- Birth control pill – linked to 10 percent of cases
- Have children
- Family history of cervical cancer or other types of cancer, such as the vagina
Source: Cancer research in the UK
Only Rutland had over 80 percent coverage, the highest level in England. As many as 103 of 149 local authorities had coverage levels above 70%, according to the report.
The second highest levels of coverage were found in Derbyshire, at 80%, and East Riding of Yorkshire, at 79.1%.
Robert Music, chief executive of the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, said it was vital that the screening program be protected in the future.
He said: “It is difficult to say what the situation is now, but we have new challenges to overcome due to COVID-19, including service disruptions and public uncertainty about participation at this time.
“There have long been widespread inequalities in access to testing. We are concerned that the pandemic not only means that they have not been treated but that they have instead spread.
“Our research shows that groups at higher risk of getting sick from the coronavirus, including those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, are now less likely to take this potentially life-saving test.
“For those who struggled to attend before the pandemic, such as people with physical disabilities, the blockages only made testing more difficult and specialist clinics for survivors of sexual violence had to close.”
Cancer Research UK has said more than 350,000 people who would normally have been referred urgently to a specialist for vital tests to check if they have the disease have not been.
The charity estimates that the delays could cause an additional 35,000 preventable deaths from cancer.
This is because it has been revealed that up to 3 million people have missed cancer screening for all forms of the disease since the end of March.
According to Cancer Research UK, urgent referrals for lung cancer – the deadliest form of the disease in the UK – are down 50% this year.
Common symptoms of the disease include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and a lack of energy, which are also signs of coronavirus.
Experts worry that lung cancer patients are waiting too late for treatment because they think they might have Covid-19 and don’t want to spread it.
People suspected of having coronavirus are urged to self-isolate, avoid contact with others and order a test. But a swab shortage means many people are denied a test and told to stay home for 14 days just to be safe.
This is a critical time that could be devoted to cancer screening, top oncologists and general practitioners said today. Early detection of lung cancer is essential in increasing a person’s chances of survival.
Only one in three people diagnosed with the disease lives more than five years. But the survival rate is 60 percent among those who are diagnosed early.
About 16,000 patients have been urgently referred for lung cancer testing in England since March, according to Cancer Research UK.
An urgent referral is when a general practitioner suspects that a patient has cancer and sends them to a specialist for testing within two weeks to see if they have the disease.
In any given normal year, doctors would expect to see 34,000 referrals for the disease.