Patients did not seek help for ‘red flag symptoms’ for cancer during the first wave of the pandemic because they didn't want to burden the NHS. 

A Cancer Research UK and Cardiff University study focusing on the experiences of 7,543 people from March to August 2020 found that nearly half of people who had potential cancer symptoms in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic did not contact their GP.

Of those who experienced symptoms, 45% admitted to not contacting their GP for any symptom. People did not seek help even for ‘red flag symptoms’ – 31% of those who experienced coughing up blood, 41% of those who had an unexplained lump or swelling and 59% of those who noticed a change in the appearance of a mole did not contact their GP. 

Three quarters of patients worried about delayed cancer tests

More than two-thirds of participants reported feeling safe from Covid-19 if they needed to attend an appointment at their GP or hospital, but nearly three quarters (72.3%) said they were worried about delayed cancer tests and investigations due to the pandemic. 

Worrying about wasting healthcare professionals’ time (15.4%), worrying about putting extra strain on the NHS (12.6%) and not wanting to be seen as someone who makes a fuss (12%) were some of the barriers reported. 

In-depth  interviews with 30 people found that despite putting concerns on hold so as not to burden the NHS, they were pleased with the care received when they did contact their GP. They even wanted to keep remote GP consultations an option alongside face-to-face consultations.

Despite fear or nervousness around attending primary care services and catching or passing on the virus at secondary care services, those who did attend either service face-to-face described feeling “safe” and “secure” when doing so.

Michelle Mitchell Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said: “NHS staff have worked incredibly hard to manage the increased strain Covid-19 has put on an already stretched system but the government must protect cancer services if we’re to avoid the real possibility that cancer survival could go backwards for the first time in decades.”