7 Aug 2020

Cancer services ramp up after detection falls during lockdown

10:17 am on 7 August 2020

Hundreds of cancer cases went undiagnosed during the Covid-19 lockdown and the weeks that followed, as the health system focused on gearing up for a pandemic.

Doctor is making a diagnosis for a patient in medical office

The backlog is starting to reduce with 225 more cancer diagnoses in June compared with the same month last year, Professor Diana Sarfati says. Photo: 123RF

A report measuring the effect of lockdown on cancer diagnoses and treatment shows there were 689 fewer cancer diagnoses in the year ending June, compared with the previous year, representing a 4.5 percent drop.

The report has been released today by Te Aho o Te Kahu, the independent Cancer Control Agency.

Its chief executive, Professor Diana Sarfati, said although the majority of cancer treatments continued during lockdown, there was a reduction in the number of people diagnosed with cancer.

"This was because screening programmes were paused, and diagnostic tests and outpatient clinics were scaled back as we braced for the unknown impact of the epidemic."

Sarfati said the backlog is starting to reduce with 225 more cancer diagnoses in June compared with the same month last year.

"Since lockdown lifted we have seen a major ramping up of cancer services, with many in the sector doing weekend and evening work, as well as outsourcing, to catch up on the Covid created backlog. The dedication and innovation of all those involved in cancer care has been outstanding," she said.

"While a cancer diagnosis is never good news, this increase in diagnoses does mean we are catching up on the delayed diagnoses of lockdown and 225 people can now begin treatment."

But Sarfati said challenges remain.

"With these new diagnoses there is extra pressure on chemotherapy and radiation services, which are already stretched in some parts of the country," she said.

"The agency will be working with the Ministry of Health and DHBs to ensure people can get the treatment they need, when they need it."

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Chemotherapy and radiation services are stretched in some parts of the country, Professor Diana Sarfati says. Photo: Supplied / YouTube

She said cancer services are now fully operational so people concerned they may have cancer should see their doctor immediately with the expectation that testing will be carried out.

"With Covid currently contained at our borders, we will continue to develop our work programme in consultation with the cancer sector to deliver much needed improvements in cancer care."

The drop in cancer diagnoses for the year to date was relatively similar across all ethnic groups but the overall impact has been most marked for haematology/lymphoid, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate and breast cancers which have all seen a 10-12 percent decrease.

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