The COVID-19 collateral: 'Cancer has been a little bit forgotten about'

Cancer referrals have dropped by a huge number since the pandemic began
Cancer referrals have dropped by a huge number since the pandemic began

As two women who have their own personal experience of living with cancer, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon from the You, Me and the Big C podcast have revealed they are really scared about how COVID-19 is impacting on cancer diagnosis and research.

Speaking on White Wine Question Time, Deborah James, aka Bowel Babe, explained that cancer referrals have dropped by a huge number since the pandemic began.

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“I think that cancer has been a little bit forgotten about,” Deborah told podcast host Kate Thornton. “Now it’s two months later, we’ve realised actually it’s one of our biggest health problems in society. People have suddenly realised that all the voices talking about cancer got a bit quiet for a while.”

She continued: “I'm not saying this is why people are not getting tested - obviously, we're really scared - but referrals to diagnosis have gone down 75% in the UK. It's absolutely ridiculous.”

The new C word

Lauren agreed, saying that COVID-19 had dwarfed cancer, even though it’s still very much a very real threat for many people.

“I almost feel like it's the new C word,” she said. “Our Big C is being taken over by another one - and it shouldn't be missed. It's not hiding behind the other one. It's still very much going.”

A recent report by University College London, the first to assess the impact of the pandemic on cancer patients, found that as well as a reduction in referrals, there’s also been a 60% fall off in chemotherapy appointments.

READ MORE: The cancers on the rise - and the decline - in the UK

This is something Deborah can identify with. She, along with her clinical team, decided that COVID-19 posed more of a risk than her cancer, so temporarily suspended treatment.

Deborah said: “This is what's happened up and down the country as anyone with cancer will tell you. Is the risk of COVID and is coming into the hospital for treatment more of a risk - or is your cancer more of a risk?

“You have to make decisions, and we made the decision that actually, we would try to delay my treatment - would give me a bit of a break - and just to kind of take me off treatment.”

Unfortunately for Deborah, this lack of treatment resulted in the re-emergence of her tumour markers, which inform clinicians if the cancer is on the move again. It was something that understandably frightened Deborah, but thankfully since re-starting treatment, she’s in a better place.

“The good news is that it's three weeks later, in theory, it’s back to where we need it to be,” she told Kate.

READ MORE: Two women with incurable breast cancer set up 'Secondary Sisters' support group to offer hope to others

However, like most cancer patients, going into hospital for treatment and tests isn’t without it’s worries.

“Every time I go into the hospital, I'm really, really worried - but they're taking massive precautions,” she revealed. “It's the only time I leave my house, and that's what's so scary.”

Time to check yourself

Even though our current attention is focused on recognising symptoms of coronavirus, the pair say it’s never been more important to pay attention to your body and understand what the symptoms of cancer are.

“If people aren't getting these symptoms and signs checked, then they will rapidly decline,” said Lauren.

“It's so important to get rid of that voice of fear in the back of your head. Speak to your local GP and health centres. They will make sure that they can see you or consult you in a way that's safe and keep your health at the most paramount point. They're not going to put you in danger.” 

You can check out the common symptoms of cancer on the Cancer Research website.

Deborah believes that now, more than ever, they need to carry on shouting about the symptoms after Cancer Research UK stated around 2,500 cases of cancer are being missed each week.

READ MORE: Blood test helped detect cancer before symptoms, study finds

It's claimed that scientists are kind of estimating that the death toll could rise by another 20% over the next year,” Deborah stated.

She continued: “I think if we're going to talk about getting your body checked, yes, it's perfectly relevant to do it now in this climate - more than ever. I call it the COVID collateral. Essentially, cancer will end up being the COVID collateral, and we don't want that to happen.”

Lauren says it’s vital to use this time when we’re at home more to pay attention to any changes in your body. 

“If you are still having symptoms that you are aware are a cancer symptom, you should probably get them checked out,” she told Kate. “It's not going to go anywhere. If you don't get it diagnosed, it will get worse. It's not something that goes away on its own.”


Brought to you by Cancer Research UK and Channel 4, Stand Up To Cancer is a fundraising campaign that brings the UK together to speed up progress in life-saving cancer research. Find out ways you can involved here.

Listen to Deborah James and Lauren Mahon talk more about lockdown, including why it’s not such a big struggle for them, and why we still need to be donating to cancer charities on this week’s episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.

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