Fears have been raised that thousands of Scots may have missed out on cancer treatment or could have the disease but have not yet been diagnosed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Macmillan Cancer Support said its analysis of cancer waiting times figures suggest about 2,250 people who should have started treatment between April and September did not.
In addition to this, the charity claims as many as 4,300 people in Scotland could be living with an undiagnosed cancer.
Macmillan’s head of policy in Scotland, Kate Seymour, said: “It’s extremely worrying that there are so many people missing from the cancer care system.
“Delays in diagnoses can lead to unnecessary deaths, as well as people facing more serious treatments that leave them with long term health issues.”
The charity is now calling for Health Secretary Jeane Freeman to commit to protecting cancer services despite the recent rise in coronavirus cases.
Macmillan wants ministers to pledge there will be no redeployment of cancer staff within the NHS, no delays to scans, surgeries or other treatments, and no pausing in screening programmes.
Cancer screening services are now running again after being put on hold earlier this year when coronavirus hit Scotland.
Almost 400,000 checks for bowel, breast and cervical cancer were delayed during the pause.
In April, chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith revealed there had been a 72% drop in urgent referrals for cancer – although this has now improved.
Ms Seymour said Macmillan has “always recognised the huge challenge coronavirus has posed to the NHS and how hard health professionals have worked”.
But she added: “While cancer treatment continued in many cases, there was also considerable disruption to some treatment and blanket cancellation of screening.
“Seven months on from the beginning of the pandemic, people with cancer must be assured that lessons have been learned and cancer services won’t face this kind of disruption again.
“The Scottish Government has pledged to protect cancer services but we now need to see this translate into action on the ground.”
She stressed: “It’s also vital that anyone who has any symptoms of cancer contacts their GP as soon as possible.
“Don’t put off an appointment that could save your life.”
Her message was echoed by Rebecca McIntyre-Smith, 32, from Edinburgh, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2019 – less than two months after her husband Keith was given his own cancer all-clear.
She said they were both treated quickly by the NHS, adding: “I can’t imagine how horrendous it must be to have to wait to get a diagnosis or treatment.
“I was on the phone straight after Keith was diagnosed trying to find out when he was getting an MRI scan, when the next appointment was happening.
“We were so lucky, everything for both of us turned around so quickly, in a matter of days.”
She added: “Going through cancer is extremely stressful as it is. I honestly cannot imagine having to wait because of Covid.
“There must be lots of people at home right now worried about a lump or a headache.
“I tell everyone I know, the slightest thing you are unsure about, go and get it checked out immediately.
“I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and if the system hadn’t worked quickly, it could have been very different.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Cancer has and will remain a key clinical priority through this pandemic.
“To ensure vital cancer services were protected during the height of the pandemic, we had a strategy for the use of the private sector which provided a green pathway for urgent suspicion of cancer patients, ensuring safe and swift access to treatment.
“The NHS Golden Jubilee also provided support and carried out an additional 1,600 urgent and cancer treatments between March and September.
“The national cancer screening programmes have all now resumed and urgent referrals for cancer have now returned to pre-lockdown levels.
“Yesterday, we published a Winter Preparedness Plan for NHS Scotland makes clear our expectation that cancer treatment is prioritised and national guidance on this is followed.
“Additionally, we will be publishing shortly a National Cancer Recovery Plan with a wide range of actions and investments for cancer services, aiming to reduce inequalities and ensuring patients across Scotland have equitable access to treatment and care.”
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