Hundreds of Northamptonshire patients don't discover they've got cancer until it's already at most deadly stage, figures show

Charity fears survival rates 'going backwards' as county hospitals chief urges people to keep coming for treatment despite pandemic fears

By Joanna Morris, Data Reporter
Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 7:08 am
Updated Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 7:10 am
More than 700 cancer cases in Northamptonshire reached an advanced stage before being diagnosed
More than 700 cancer cases in Northamptonshire reached an advanced stage before being diagnosed

Hundreds of cancers are not discovered until they have progressed to the most deadly stage of illness in Northamptonshire, new figures show.

And a leading charity fears a 'cancer catastrophe' could be on the cards if more is not done to reduce the number of people receiving late diagnoses.

Tens of thousands of cancer cases reached the most severe stage of illness before being detected across England in 2019 according to the most recent figures available from NHS Digital.

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At least 764 cases diagnosed by medics in the NHS Northamptonshire CCG area had reached an advanced stage at the point of diagnosis that year.

Cancer Research UK said there are concerns that survival rates could 'go backwards' as a result of the coronavirus pandemic's impact upon the NHS.

Northamptonshire hospitals chief executive Simon Weldon urged cancer patients not to delay starting treatment despite the current surge in Covid-19 cases forcing authorities to declare a major incident in the county.

He admitted concerns over the virus have put some people off going to hospital, saying: "We have seen people stop coming at other stages during the pandemic.

"But we are continuing to provide that life-changing surgery and its important people come forward if they need that."

Before cancer patients embark upon treatment, doctors commonly use staging techniques to establish how severe the disease is and how far it has spread.

The stages, which range in severity from zero to four, are used to describe the size of tumours and to determine how far the cancer has spread from where it originated.

There were 4,251 cancers diagnosed in Northamptonshire in 2019 and stage four diagnoses, which carry the greatest mortality risk, represented 26 percent of those with a valid stage identified.

That was around the same as recorded the year before.

Figures for CCGs across England show some cancers are far more likely to be diagnosed late than others, with those affecting the pancreas, lungs and oesophagus among those the most likely to be detected at an advanced stage – often because they do not cause symptoms until a later stage.

They are among those represented by the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, which launched in 2017.

The taskforce, made up of six different charities, is launching its first awareness day on January 11 to highlight the importance of early diagnosis in improving survival rates.

In the area covered by the NHS Northamptonshire CCG, 45 percent of the 517 lung cancers detected in 2019 were at stage four when found, as were 64 percent of 124 pancreatic cancers and 43 percent of 143 oesophageal cases.

Patients diagnosed at the earliest stage are between five and 10 times more likely to survive at least five years compared to those diagnosed at stage four.

Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said reducing the number of people diagnosed with advanced disease was crucial to saving lives and swift action was needed from the Government and NHS.

Dr Moffatt added: “Many factors can impact late diagnoses, and Covid has affected many of these, such as how readily people come forward with symptoms, or how long people need to wait for tests.

"Worryingly, waits for a cancer diagnosis and treatment were struggling well before the pandemic hit.

"Chronic shortages in staff and equipment mean cancer waiting times have been missed for years."

An NHS spokeswoman said the health service was committed to ensuring that 75 percent of cancers are detected at stage one by 2028, adding that 95 percent of those diagnosed since March 2020 began treatment within a month.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said cancer diagnosis and treatment is a priority for the Government, adding that £10 billion was being invested in cutting waiting times.