Revealed: In heartbreaking pictures, the human face of cancer epidemic that is now threatening 100,000 patients
- Latifah King, 27, and Kelly Smith, 31, both died of cancer after treatment delays due to Covid lockdowns which meant missed chemotherapy and late diagnosis
- Their stories have been revealed as scores of MPs today warn the Prime Minister that Britain is facing a ‘cancer disaster’ that could cost tens of thousands of lives
- Politicians say as many as 100,000 people could miss out on cancer treatment due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with many dying unnecessarily
- MPs say that 50,000 patients are thought to be living with undiagnosed cancer
Posing happily for photographs, these two young women look to be the picture of health.
But tragically, Latifah King, 27, and Kelly Smith, 31, both died of cancer after delays in treatment due to Covid lockdowns.
Young mother Miss Smith had her chemotherapy for bowel cancer paused for three months in the first lockdown.
Meanwhile, Miss King – who was at first told she had sciatica – was not able to see a doctor in person or offered any tests, and died a week after her diagnosis.
Their heartrending stories were revealed as scores of MPs today warn the Prime Minister that Britain is facing a ‘cancer disaster’ that could cost tens of thousands of lives.
A group of 75 cross-party politicians say that as many as 100,000 people could miss out on cancer treatment due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with many dying unnecessarily.
Latifah King (left), died of cancer last week at age of 27 while Kelly Smith, 31, (right) died from bowel cancer after her chemotherapy treatment was paused during the height of pandemic
They have written to Boris Johnson demanding the cancer backlog is ‘tackled with the same political will as the vaccination rollout’.
‘The Government have rightly moved heaven and earth to save lives from Covid – it’s time the same was done for cancer patients,’ the MPs say.
‘She couldn’t go to the GP and died a week after her diagnosis’
By the time Latifah King was finally diagnosed with cancer, she only had days to live.
The 27-year-old died last Wednesday after spending months in agony.
Miss King was not able to see a doctor in person or offered any tests to check for cancer.
Last night her twin sister said Latifah was ‘brushed aside because the only killer they see right now is Covid’.
Miss King, from Leicester, developed debilitating pain in her legs in October, became bedbound and lost four stone.
However, the pandemic meant she could only get a GP appointment via Zoom, and was misdiagnosed with sciatica.
She took herself to A&E in December when the pain became unbearable and she had visible lumps from the tumours, but was dismissed and prescribed codeine.
Miss King was finally admitted to hospital in January, when biopsies revealed she had cancer.
It took until the start of February for her to be diagnosed with epithelioid sarcoma, an aggressive form of soft tissue cancer.
She died at home one week later. Her twin Shanika told the Mail: ‘If it wasn’t a pandemic I believe more would have been done.
‘Covid means other illnesses are getting pushed aside.’
Millions of people have been hit by disruption to cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment since Britain went into lockdown last March.
Some grieving relatives have suggested that cancer patients have become ‘collateral damage’, with the NHS focused on Covid.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy, backed by leading cancer charities, say urgent investment is now needed to boost NHS capacity so staff can treat and diagnose more patients.
Chairman Tim Farron said: ‘We are deeply concerned the Government has underestimated the scale and severity of the Covid cancer backlog.
‘Without extra capacity, the backlog will not get cleared for many years and thousands of loved ones will die unnecessarily.’
The MPs say 50,000 patients are thought to be living with undiagnosed cancer due to disruption caused by Covid-19.
‘This figure could rise as high as 100,000 by the time we emerge from the pandemic,’ their letter says. ‘The question is not whether we should save Covid patients or cancer patients… we can and should be able to save both.’
Early diagnosis and prompt treatment is crucial to survival chances. Every four-week delay in cancer treatment increases the risk of death by ten per cent.
But last year saw the lowest number of people starting cancer treatment in England for ten years, with cancer surgery alone down by 21,700 in the first wave.
A staggering 330,000 fewer people saw a specialist for suspected cancer between March and December, as the Government’s ‘stay at home’ message put people off getting symptoms checked.
In today’s letter to the PM and Chancellor, the coalition of MPs warn: ‘Cancer lives are already being lost and we may lose as many as 35,000 patients and 60,000 life years to cancer as a result of the cancer backlog.’
They are calling for a new national cancer recovery plan to bring down waiting lists and ‘avoid a post-Covid cancer catastrophe’.
Experts say funding is urgently needed for equipment such as advanced radiotherapy machines, which provide treatment more quickly, to help doctors clear the enormous backlog.
Extra capacity is essential because cancer services must run at 120 per cent of ‘normal’ levels – at least – to make up for the shortfall.
Professor Pat Price, a leading oncologist and founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, warned delays meant patients were coming forward with more advanced cancer than usual.
Mother was fighting cancer for three years
Young mother Kelly Smith died after her chemotherapy was paused for three months during the first lockdown.
The 31-year-old – who leaves six-year-old son Finn – was suffering from stage four bowel cancer but had been responding well to treatment.
Before she died on June 13, the beautician said she was angry that her treatment had been halted, adding: ‘I don’t want to die, I feel like I’ve so much more to do.’
Miss Smith, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, had been fighting bowel cancer for three-and-a-half years.
Her family believe the decision to cancel her chemotherapy during the pandemic ‘drastically’ cut short her life as it meant ‘there was nothing to keep the cancer in check’.
After her death, Miss Smith’s stepfather Craig Russell co-founded the Catch Up With Cancer campaign group.
He said: ‘Cancer patients have a right to life just as much as anybody who has Covid does, they shouldn’t be regarded as collateral damage of the pandemic.
The Government need to act now or we’ll go from the Covid crisis straight to a new cancer crisis.’
She told the Daily Mail: ‘We are going to be looking back in years to come at a Covid-caused cancer nightmare that led to as many cancer patients being lost unnecessarily as we lose to coronavirus itself.
‘It doesn’t have to be this way. We can save both Covid and cancer patients. But that needs a change in approach, proper accountability and hard cash at the Budget for cancer services.
‘We estimate by the end of the pandemic there could be a backlog of 100,000 untreated cancer patients.
‘These are people who since last April should have been diagnosed with new or relapsed cancer and had all their treatment but have not. Some still won’t have been diagnosed. Thousands of people are going to die who didn’t need to have done.’
Professor Price added: ‘There are straightforward steps such as replacing old radiotherapy machines or scanners that can help clear the backlog, to increase treatment and diagnosis rates.
‘Newer radiotherapy machines can do one round of treatment in 15 minutes, whereas older models take 45 minutes. That means you could treat three times as many people.’
The letter was signed by MPs from all parties including Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and former Tory minister Caroline Nokes.
They said the Spring Budget – due to be unveiled by the Chancellor on March 3 – would be the ‘ideal opportunity’ for investment in a new cancer recovery plan.
There are growing fears about the devastating knock-on consequences of the pandemic on treatment for other health conditions.
A record 4.52million people are currently waiting to start NHS treatment, with 242,000 waiting more than a year.
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: ‘The Government must urgently make sure the NHS gets the funding it needs.
‘This Spring Budget could be that moment to help give every person with cancer the timely diagnosis and treatment they deserve.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘Every death is a tragedy and our sympathies go out to everyone who has lost a loved one to cancer. Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a top priority throughout the pandemic.
‘An extra £1billion will be used to boost diagnosis and treatment in the year ahead.’
‘Institutionalised scaremongering is fuelling this cancer nightmare’
Commentary by Professor Angus Dalgleish
As the second wave of Covid-19 retreats, the devastating impact on cancer patients is becoming ever more apparent.
We are now facing a savage new health crisis, one which may prove even more destructive than the pandemic itself.
Life-saving operations have been postponed, vital treatments delayed and new cases missed as screening programmes have been cut back and GPs refer fewer cases.
The human cost – in terms of anxiety, pain, misery and death – are horrendous. As a fellow oncologist said to me this week: ‘This is an absolute disaster. It is going to be far worse than Covid.’ I fear he is right.
The grim reality of the burgeoning crisis is spelled out in a letter signed by 75 MPs of all parties to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – and backed by leading cancer charities – in which they warn that the current ‘Covid-induced’ backlog could lead to at least 35,000 excess deaths.
Having rightly stated that ‘cancer lives are already being lost’, the MPs argue: ‘The question is not whether we should save Covid patients or cancer patients. Every life is valuable and important. We can and should be able to save both.’
Life-saving operations have been postponed, vital cancer treatments delayed and new cases missed as screening programmes have been cut back and GPs refer fewer cases (file photo)
Such a clear moral purpose has, tragically, disappeared in the imbalanced – and at times overblown – concentration on fighting Covid. I certainly welcome the attempt by dozens of our Parliamentarians to inject an urgent sense of perspective into the debate.
As a cancer specialist, I see daily the paralysis that has gripped the system and I have been warning of an imminent catastrophe – often on these pages – for months.
But I fear that the signatories to the letter are greatly underestimating the scale of the problem.
From the evidence I have seen, cancer referrals are down by no less than 50 per cent over the last quarter in many parts of the country, while cancer waiting times are now at their worst level on record.
After the first lockdown was lifted last summer, we made some progress in tackling the backlog.
But since the autumn, when piecemeal restrictions were imposed up and down the country before another national lockdown, I have witnessed an unfolding calamity as the figures for cancelled operations and waiting times again rose dramatically.
Since the autumn, when piecemeal restrictions were imposed up and down the country before another lockdown, figures for cancelled operations and waiting times again rose dramatically
There isn’t a single NHS cancer specialist who hasn’t witnessed the suffering caused by this crisis.
In one case in which I became involved, a young man in his thirties had contacted his GP about a lump in his neck, excessive sweating and sudden weight loss – all classic symptoms of lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Against the backdrop of the Covid lockdown, the GP did not conduct a physical examination.
Instead, the patient was offered a short telephone consultation and put on a course of antibiotics. Inevitably, the untreated lymphoma worsened.
By the time he was finally referred to the local cancer unit, the lymphoma had progressed to the terminal Stage 4.
It was the same story with another patient who showed signs of colorectal cancer. He endured a delay of several months before getting an accurate diagnosis. Again, sadly, it was too late.
Today the number of patients starting cancer treatment is at its lowest level for a decade
Such agonising ordeals are being repeated thousands of times nationwide.
Today the number of patients starting cancer treatment is at its lowest level for a decade, despite the huge rise in the British population.
The tragedy is that if cancer is caught early, patient outcomes can be very positive because of the huge advances made in surgery, screening, scans, and chemotherapy.
The dark days of 40 years ago, when a cancer diagnosis was likely to be a swift death sentence, have passed. Yet due to Covid hysteria we are squandering those gains.
There is another aspect to the crisis which illustrates the negative consequences of the Government’s anti-Covid propaganda.
It is the incidence of cancer patients themselves cancelling their scheduled hospital operations because they fear catching Covid.
That might seem a bizarre overreaction given that Covid – even for vulnerable people – is rarely fatal, while untreated cancer is a certain killer.
But it shows the devastating impact of what I see as institutionalised scaremongering.
Too many people with diagnosable conditions have taken the message to stay at home and protect the NHS quite literally – thereby sacrificing their own health and fuelling the cancer nightmare.
The way out of this disaster is to end the lockdown, bring back normality to the NHS, and give tens of thousands of cancer patients the care they need.
The success of the vaccination programme, accompanied by the enormous drop in Covid infections, hospital admissions and deaths, means we are well-placed to adopt this course.
To prevent more suffering and grief, action must be taken now.
Angus Dalgleish is a professor of oncology at a London teaching hospital
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