What impact has COVID-19 had on cancer?

October 21, 2021

Although it seems like all the health news for the past 18 months has been about COVID-19, other illnesses - including cancer - haven’t gone away.  

Here’s what we know about how COVID-19 has affected cancer services, and the importance of getting to know what’s normal for you to spot the early warning signs of cancer. 

How is COVID-19 affecting cancer?

While NHS staff have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has caused major disruption across the whole of the NHS, including cancer services, with many tests and treatments being cancelled or delayed. But just as many people will be developing cancer during the pandemic as at any other time. 

The problems were particularly bad in the first wave back in 2020, when 350,000 fewer people than normal were urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer, and around a quarter fewer cancer patients started treatment in between April and July 2020 compared with the same time in 2019.

Cancer services are still struggling, with experts suggesting that it could take more than a decade to fully clear the backlog

Invitations for cancer screening and follow-up appointments have also been delayed due to the impact of COVID-19. And researchers have also found that 1 in 5 people are less likely to go for cancer screening than before the pandemic.

When it comes to cancer the clock is ticking, and every month of delay in getting treated increases the chances of dying from the disease

So as services start to get back on track, it’s more important than ever that people are aware of the early signs and symptoms of cancer and the importance of seeing a the doctor if something’s not right.

What are the early signs of cancer?

The term cancer comprises over 200 diseases, so it’s impossible to list every symptom. The most important thing to remember is that if something doesn’t seem normal for you, you should go to your doctor to get it checked out. 

However, there are a few tell-tale signs to look out for, including:

  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Lumps
  • Pain
  • Changes in toilet habits or blood in your poop

Importantly, some of the key symptoms of COVID-19 - persistent coughing, breathlessness and fatigue - are also warning signs of lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the UK.

If you have symptoms that don’t go away for two or three weeks and aren’t explained by a positive COVID-19 test, then you should go to your doctor to get checked out. ‍

For more information on the signs and symptoms of cancer, take a look at Cancer Research UK’s website

Keeping an eye on your health 

Every day, the ZOE COVID Study app asks you a simple question: “How do you feel physically right now?”, with the options to respond “I feel physically normal” or “I’m not feeling quite right”, which takes you through a series of questions about your symptoms.

Right now, the app is geared towards identifying people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and can’t yet spot the signs of other health conditions, including cancer. Our wider health studies programme makes data available to these other types of studies in the future, and we’ll be asking different questions to provide particular studies with real value. In the meantime, monitoring your health on a regular basis is a good way to keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t seem normal for you. 

Cancer is a scary thing to think about, but it’s really important to go to the doctor and get checked out as soon as possible if something doesn’t seem right. And even though there’s currently a backlog in cancer referrals due to the pandemic, the sooner you can get into the system the quicker you’ll be seen.

Almost all of the time it won’t be cancer, so your mind can be put at rest. But in the unlikely event that there is something wrong, the earlier you can get treated, the higher your chances of long-term survival. 

For example, according to Cancer Research UK, more than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients survive the disease for 5 years or more if diagnosed at the earliest stage, and almost all women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive for at least 5 years.

What is ZOE doing to help cancer?

We know that more than 600,000 of our ZOE COVID Study app contributors are interested in helping with research into other health conditions beyond COVID-19, and that cancer is one of your top priorities.

Going forward, we’ll be working with our research partners at King’s College London to develop studies to roll out through the app to help us understand more about cancer and the impact of COVID-19, and help save lives in the future. Watch this space, and make sure you keep your app up to date!

Stay safe and keep logging.


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