Up to 50,000 people in the UK could have undiagnosed cancer - signs to watch out for and how to get help

Macmillan Cancer Support has said up to 50,000 people have cancers which remain undiagnosed due to disruption caused by Covid-19.

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A further 33,000 have had delayed starts to treatment because of the pandemic, the charity says.

In a best case scenario, the backlog of patients could take up to 18 months to clear.

The number awaiting diagnosis could double within a year

Macmillan has warned that the number of people awaiting a cancer diagnosis could double within a year if hospitals become overwhelmed by Covid patients this winter.

The concerns about the backlog in cancer care were raised in a new report titled ‘The Forgotten C? The impact of Covid-19 on cancer care.’

The backlog was caused by a combination of factors, including disruptions to vital appointments, surgeries and treatments in the first wave of the pandemic, and thousands of people not being able to visit their GP.

The charity’s chief executive, Lynda Thomas, has warned that cancer care in the UK is at a crossroads, and cannot afford to be shut down this winter.

She said, “Because of the pandemic, we estimate that an additional 50,000 people are missing a cancer diagnosis and others are having their appointments disrupted once again.

“It is simply unacceptable that they face unbearable and unprecedented delays which could affect their chances of survival.

“Cancer doesn’t stop for Covid-19 and neither can our health service.”

Flawed findings

A spokesperson for the health service in England argued that Macmillan’s findings were “flawed,” saying, “Because thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, cancer treatments are actually back to pre-pandemic levels.

“The majority of people who have not been diagnosed are people who have not come forward for checks and so our message is clear - if you have worrying symptoms you must get this checked - the NHS is ready and able to treat you.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman added, “Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a priority throughout the pandemic – more than 200,000 people were treated for cancer during the first peak – and we urge people to come forward if they have symptoms.

“The NHS treated two non-Covid patients for every one Covid patient during the first wave of the pandemic and more than 870,000 people were referred for cancer checks between March and August.

“£3 billion has been allocated to the NHS to prepare for winter including funding for Nightingale hospital surge capacity and to upgrade A&E facilities so the NHS can continue to provide urgent care.”

Common early signs of cancer

If you are concerned about whether you are showing signs of cancer, it's important to tell your doctor. Anyone can develop cancer, but it’s more common as people get older, with most cases found in those aged 50 or over.

Some possible signs of cancer - like a lump - are better known than others. Because of this, less well-known possible cancer symptoms are listed here first. But that doesn’t mean they’re more important, or more likely to be cancer.

If you spot anything that isn’t normal for you, whether it’s on this list or not, get it checked out.

Common early symptoms include

BreathlessnessUnexplained vaginal bleedingVery heavy night sweatsPersistent heartburn or indigestionCroaky voice or hoarsenessMouth or tongue ulcer that won’t healDifficulty swallowingA change in bowel habitsUnusual breast changes

For the full list visit the UK cancer research website

The Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 is open seven days a week from 8am to 8pm.