The tragedy of Wigan cancer patients' late diagnoses

Hundreds of cancers are not discovered until they have progressed to the most deadly stage of illness in Wigan, new figures show.
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A “cancer catastrophe” could be on the cards if more is not done to reduce the number of people receiving late diagnoses, according to charity Cancer Research UK.

And a top Wigan GP urged local people who think they may be exhibiting cancer symptoms to come forward, saying that they have not been the fastest to seek help and advice in the past.

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Tens of thousands of cancer cases reached the most severe stage of illness before being detected across England in 2019 – the most recent figures available from NHS Digital.

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosisThe earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis
The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the better the prognosis

At least 498 cases diagnosed by medics in the NHS Wigan Borough CCG area had reached an advanced stage at the point of diagnosis that year.

Cancer Research UK said there are concerns that survival rates could “go backwards” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact upon the NHS.

Before cancer patients embark upon treatment, doctors commonly use staging techniques to establish how severe the disease is and how far it has spread.

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The stages, which range in severity from zero to four, are used to describe the size of tumours and to determine how far the cancer has spread from where it originated.

There were 1,981 cancers diagnosed in Wigan in 2019 and stage four diagnoses, which carry the greatest mortality risk, represented 29 per cent of those with a valid stage identified.

That was up from the 26 per cent recorded the year before.

Figures for CCGs across England show some cancers are far more likely to be diagnosed late than others, with those affecting the pancreas, lungs and oesophagus among those the most likely to be detected at an advanced stage – often because they do not cause symptoms until a later stage.

They are among those represented by the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, which launched in 2017.

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The taskforce, made up of six different charities, is launching its first awareness day on January 11 to highlight the importance of early diagnosis in improving survival rates.

In the area covered by the NHS Wigan Borough CCG, 47 per cent of the 340 lung cancers detected in 2019 were at stage four when found, as were 36 of 55 pancreatic cancers and 33 of 63 oesophageal cases.

Patients diagnosed at the earliest stage are between five and 10 times more likely to survive at least five years compared to those diagnosed at stage four.

Wigan CCG chairman Dr Tim Dalton said: “Diagnosing and treating cancer has continued to be a priority for health services in our borough throughout the pandemic.

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“In December 2021 (the last figures available), over 90 per cent of patients who were referred with a suspected cancer were seen within two weeks and over 70 per cent who were diagnosed with cancer started treatment within two months

“These figures show that despite the pandemic, local patients with cancer have continued to have access to the care and treatment that they need.

“However, patients in our borough are not always the first to come forward and seek advice or help for cancer symptoms, or to go for their cancer screening, for many different reasons.

“This means that unfortunately sometimes cancers are only diagnosed at the later stages, reducing the chances of people making a full recovery. This is a situation that is likely to have got worse due to the pandemic – both because of the increased pressure on services and also people’s fear of catching COVID.

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“I would like to reassure you that GP practices are open and are seeing patients – both face-to-face and over the phone depending on what they need, and have been open throughout the pandemic, with significantly more people seeking support from their GP this year than ever before.

“I would urge anyone who has unexplained symptoms to come forward, including if you have sudden weight loss or gain, unexplained lumps or swellings, changes to your skin, a persistent cough or blood in your pee or poo.

“And if you have been contacted about cancer screening – bowel, breast or cervical, please do get it booked in early this year. Please don’t give the cancer chance to develop further, if you are ill and you don’t know why, come forward, contact your GP practice and help us to help you.”

Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said reducing the number of people diagnosed with advanced disease was crucial to saving lives and swift action was needed from the Government and NHS.

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Dr Moffatt added: “Many factors can impact late diagnoses, and Covid has affected many of these, such as how readily people come forward with symptoms, or how long people need to wait for tests.

“Worryingly, waits for a cancer diagnosis and treatment were struggling well before the pandemic hit.

“Chronic shortages in staff and equipment mean cancer waiting times have been missed for years.”

An NHS spokeswoman said the health service was committed to ensuring that 75 per cent of cancers are detected at stage one by 2028, adding that 95 per cent of those diagnosed since March 2020 began treatment within a month.

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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said cancer diagnosis and treatment is a priority for the Government, adding that £10 billion was being invested in cutting waiting times.

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