How COVID-19 continues to affect cancer screening in Europe

Breast cancer pins, thin mustaches in November, rotten teeth on cigarette packs and images of black lungs in classrooms: cancer awareness campaigns are commonplace across Europe.

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

“The earlier cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat and the better the chances that a person will survive 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 of the Irish Cancer Society.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the way people have been able to access their GPs, causing delays and life-threatening waiting lists.

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

‘One in 10 expected cancers was not diagnosed’

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 have been devastating. Earlier this month, the group warned that around 14% of cancer patients are now being diagnosed in Ireland’s emergency rooms.

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

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

And the group added that one of the sectors most affected in that figure was cancer prevention, with bladder cancer, small intestine cancer and neuroblastoma being the most affected.

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

Call for more childhood cancer screenings

Historically, some groups have lagged behind when it comes to cancer screening, regardless of the pandemic.

According to Paula Rodríguez, who works with the Galbán Association, a group that supports families with children with cancer in Spain, doctors initially do not screen for cancer when young people begin to show symptoms. This is because the first signs of cancer can sometimes mimic the symptoms of many common childhood illnesses.

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

“It is usually masked by childhood illnesses and is often difficult to diagnose. This creates a problem and in many cases the disease is detected in very advanced stages, which worsens the child’s prognosis.”

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

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