A GWENT cancer expert has spoken of ‘huge concern’ at the potential impact on patients of a significant fall in referrals since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

A major report on the impact of coronavirus on cancer diagnoses in Wales will be presented to Senedd Members and charities today - and Dr Ian Williamson, assistant medical director of cancer services and lung cancer consultant physician at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board - said it is vital patients with suspected cancer symptoms continue to seek help as soon as possible.

“At the height of the pandemic from April-June, we saw significantly less patients with suspected cancer compared with previous years. We’re hugely concerned about what this might mean for cancer patients in Gwent and across Wales,” said Dr Williamson.

“It is crucial that patients who experience any suspected cancer symptoms discuss these with their GP. Surgeries are open and GPs want to see you.

“Sometimes cancer can be picked up early as an incidental finding when patients have a test for other concerns. For example, a chest X-ray for symptoms of a chest infection may pick up early stage lung cancer.

“Unfortunately, as a result of Covid-19, fewer patients are having these types of tests.”

Among the report’s recommendations is urgent reintroduction of the Single Cancer Pathway, the Welsh Government’s cancer waiting times target, under which patients should be tested and begin treatment within 62 days of cancer being suspected.

“The Single Cancer Pathway offers an opportunity to improve the way we organise cancer care in Wales,” said Dr Williamson.

“[This includes] the support patients are provided throughout the process, and encouraging them to attend appointments as quickly as possible.”


The inquiry, by the Senedd’s Cross Party Group on Cancer (CPGC), also found that confusion over symptoms of lung cancer and coronavirus may be behind a worrying fall in referrals for lung cancer tests.

Referrals from GPs for suspected lung cancer were hardest hit in lockdown, and the slowest to recover. These were down 72 per cent during lockdown in April, and down 26 per cent in August.

Wales-wide in August there were around 8,600 urgent referrals for all suspected cancers, nine per cent down on August 2019.

The report calls for a national recovery plan for cancer and diagnostic services from the impact of coronavirus.

It concludes that the Welsh Government and NHS Wales should do more to encourage anyone with concerning symptoms to seek help, including via a wide-ranging mass media communications campaign initially focusing on lung cancer. There should also be reassurance that people can be seen and treated safely.

David Rees MS, who chairs the CPGC, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been the greatest threat and challenge to our NHS, and cancer has not been immune to this.

"I have heard many experiences of people whose cancer tests and treatments were in some way affected by the impact of Covid-19. It has caused considerable anxiety and, most worryingly, concerns that cancer survival could be negatively affected.

“The evidence is clear that diagnosing more cancers at an earlier stage, when they are more treatable, offers the best hope of saving more lives. This is why we must have a plan to recover cancer services as quickly and safely as possible.

“It’s necessary for the Single Cancer Pathway to be reintroduced to ensure people with concerning symptoms feel confident about contacting their doctor.

“It’s hugely worrying that we’re seeing far fewer referrals for lung cancer. Given that a cough is one of the principal symptoms of Covid-19, our report highlights that it may be more difficult for people to associate a cough with cancer.

"An awareness campaign could help explain the difference between a cough for Covid-19 and lung cancer by encouraging people to see their GP if their symptoms have lasted a long time.”

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell, said the report reveals the "devastating impact" coronavirus has had on cancer care in Wales, and action is needed now to start top tackle a wave of undiagnosed cancer cases is building, not least in lung cancer.

“Healthcare staff are working tirelessly and, without their efforts, the impact of the pandemic on cancer patients would have been even worse," she said.

“Recovering from the pandemic is important, but we mustn’t lose sight that improvement in cancer services was urgently needed before Covid-19 hit.

"A new cancer strategy for Wales, with the Single Cancer Pathway at the heart of it, will be critical if we are to diagnose more cancers earlier. The Welsh Government cannot wait and must make this a priority.”