Macmillan Cancer Support has a long history of supporting people through long-term illness and all its associated challenges. Since the Covid-19 pandemic first started sending shockwaves through the UK and the National Health Service, we have been immensely proud of our Macmillan healthcare professionals, who have stepped up to provide the best possible care for patients during what has felt like one of the most anxious and uncertain times in our recent history. Yet, despite these best efforts, the impact of the coronavirus on people living with cancer, both on their survival chances and experience of care, has been hugely significant. This problem will not go away soon.
There was a substantial drop in people visiting their GP with symptoms and being referred for cancer tests during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, as well as major disruption to screening programmes. Our analysis estimates that there are tens of thousands of people across the UK missing a cancer diagnosis they would otherwise have received. This is a colossal figure and we must remember that behind this huge statistic are everyday people with families and livelihoods, who might be unknowingly living with a disease that can, devastatingly in some cases, limit their life span the longer it goes undiagnosed. Even with considerable extra resources (over and above the levels we had before the pandemic), it could take well into 2022 to clear the backlog in cancer diagnoses. We are deeply concerned that the current resurgence of Covid-19 could increase this timeline even further.
The impact of the pandemic on cancer care has made Macmillan’s work all the more vital. We’ve being doing whatever it takes to adapt to this ever-evolving situation and ensure the continuation of our crucial support during this challenging time. Early in 2020, we set up a new online COVID-19 hub to provide around-the-clock guidance and support for people affected by cancer. When the first national lockdown came into force, 250 Macmillan Support Line staff moved to remote working in a matter of days, so the experts on our free helpline could continue to provide much-needed clinical advice, financial information and emotional support, seven days a week. Alongside this, additional emotional support is being delivered by a wonderful group of volunteers, who participate in Macmillan’s new ‘Telephone Buddies’ scheme – a 12-week support system for people with cancer who may be isolated from loved ones.
When it became clear that cancer services might be impacted during the pandemic, we took steps to understand the scale and nature of the disruption and launched our ‘The Forgotten C’ campaign to ensure cancer was not forgotten in the minds of the public and decision-makers. This included generating lots of media coverage to showcase the impact Covid-19 was having on people with cancer and raising key problems and solutions directly with the government.
Furthermore, many of our usual fundraising efforts were unable to take place due to the pandemic. To address the resulting income challenges, our fundraising team has been working flat out to create new fundraising ideas and opportunities for our supporters, such as Games Night In, a virtual team-games offering. Such efforts will play a role in helping Macmillan to weather a significant anticipated income loss of £175m by 2022.
As we move further into the third wave and the disastrous ramifications of the pandemic continue to unfurl, we know this is an acutely challenging time for the National Health Service (NHS) and cancer care. With hospitals still under intense pressure from high numbers of COVID-19 patients, we know that this is one of the most worrying times in recent history to receive a cancer diagnosis. Healthcare professionals are doing all they can to keep cancer care on track, but many are now facing unspeakably difficult decisions about how to keep people safe.
It is imperative that people expecting tests and treatment for cancer in the coming weeks face minimal disruption. However, if this is unavoidable to ensure people’s safety, it’s vital that all decisions are based on patients’ individual circumstances and are communicated directly by clinical teams. Cancer patients need clear and open communication with their medical teams and to be reassured that everything imaginable is being done to ensure that they receive the necessary treatment as soon as possible - and know who to contact if they have questions.
It is also essential that the huge drop in referrals for suspected cancer tests during the first wave of the pandemic does not recur – it must be made clear that ‘Stay at Home’ doesn’t mean ‘don’t seek help’. I would encourage anyone in the UK who is experiencing a change or symptom that could be cancer to prioritise contacting their General Practitioner and to not worry about burdening the healthcare system. While the NHS is under huge pressure, it is still open to those that need it. This also applies to those awaiting tests and treatment.
This is our opportunity to see that cancer does not become the forgotten ‘C’ in the coronavirus pandemic. We have to learn lessons from 2020; how we respond now will shape the reality for people with cancer in the future. Reducing the transmission of coronavirus is vital to relieve pressure on hard-working health and care staff and to allow cancer care to carry on.
At Macmillan, we will continue to be the voice of people with cancer in the best ways we can – whether that’s speaking up around disruption to treatment and care or the impact on peoples’ finances, partnering with and influencing the NHS or providing vital information and support when people need it most. And after the pandemic, we will be making sure those lessons continue to be learnt on what’s needed next for people with cancer.