Cancer doesn’t stop because there’s a pandemic. Here are the symptoms to look out for.

November 19, 2020

Just because we’re all focused on COVID-19, it doesn’t mean that other serious health conditions are on pause. As many people are likely to develop cancer during the pandemic as they would be in any other year.  

Signs to look out for

While you’re busy logging your symptoms in the COVID Symptom Study app, you may not be thinking about symptoms that don’t seem related to COVID.

“Cancer is over 200 diseases, so it’s impossible to list every symptom,” says Karis Betts, health information manager at Cancer Research UK. “Our advice is that if something doesn’t seem normal for you, you need to get it checked out.” 

Signs that may indicate that something is wrong include: 

  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Tiredness
  • Lumps
  • Pain
  • Changes in toilet habits.

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

If you have symptoms like this 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 cancer symptoms, take a look at Cancer Research UK’s website. 

Thousands of missed diagnoses 

The number of people being referred to cancer services has dropped dramatically due to a combination of cancelled screening appointments, delays caused by the pandemic and people’s hesitancy to go to the doctor or hospital with worrying symptoms.

More than 350,000 fewer people than normal have been urgently referred by their GP for suspected cancer. And around 31,000 fewer cancer patients started treatment in between April and July this year compared with the same time last year - that’s a reduction of 26%,” says Karis.

Unfortunately, this drop isn’t because fewer people are developing cancer or needing treatment.

“There's a backlog of people who have cancer but haven’t been diagnosed yet,” she explains.

Delaying diagnosis costs lives 

When diagnosis is delayed, people aren’t getting the treatment they need, and their cancer may be spreading. All of this has a knock-on impact on survival.

Research from the first wave of the pandemic suggests that the risk of dying from cancer increases by around 10% with each month that starting treatment is delayed. 

“We know the importance of early diagnosis,” says Karis “The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the more likely treatment is to be successful and so more people survive their disease.”

If something’s not right, get it checked out

Cancer Research UK stresses that people should feel confident about contacting their doctor, even during the pandemic. 

“People might think that the health system is only geared up to deal with COVID right now, but that's not the case. If something is wrong, your doctor wants to see you,” Karis says. 

The NHS is operating slightly differently at the moment, with measures in place to keep you safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. So you may have a telephone appointment with your GP first, who will then decide if they want to see you in person or refer you on to a specialist. 

“If you have been advised to go to follow-up appointments, it’s crucial that you go,” says Karis. 

She also highlights the importance of being persistent if you’re not getting the care you expect.

“People need to be as stubborn as their symptoms: if it's not going away, you shouldn't be going away either.”

Summary

  • Cancer has not stopped or slowed down because of the pandemic
  • Thousands of people may have undiagnosed cancers due to the pandemic
  • Cancer is a much commoner cause of death than Covid-19 
  • Delaying cancer diagnosis and treatments may reduce the chance of survival
  • If you experience persistent symptoms that are not normal for you, go and see your GP

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