Cancer survival rates in Scotland could go backwards, campaigners have warned, as new figures showed the number of people being diagnosed early has reached its lowest for almost a decade.
Public Health Scotland figures showed that in 2019 and 2020 the proportion of bowel, lung and breast cancer cases, which are among the most common forms of the disease, that were diagnosed at stage one was the lowest it had been since 2011-2012.
Meanwhile, the proportion of cases of these cancers which were not picked up until stage four, by which point the disease has spread to other parts of the body, was the highest it had been since the two-year period 2013 and 2014.
Public Health Scotland said that meant there were 19% fewer breast cancers diagnosed than expected, 25% fewer bowel cancer cases and 9% less lung cancers over the period than if Covid had not happened.
For breast cancer, the number diagnosed at either stage one or stage two fell by 35% and 15% respectively, while there were small increases in the number of people diagnosed later in the disease at either stage three or stage four – with these rising by 5% and 7%
There were also “substantial drops” of 30% or more in the number diagnosed with bowel cancer at stage one, two and three.
And for lung cancer, diagnoses at stages one, two or three fell by between 11% and 13%.
The Scottish Government temporarily paused cancer screening programmes, including those for breast and bowel cancer, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with these resuming later on in the year.
However, David Ferguson, of Cancer Research UK, said the coronavirus crisis had been “devastating for cancer services”.
He said: “This report reinforces our fears that opportunities to diagnose cancer at an early stage may have been missed.
“Urgent action is needed. Cancer survival wasn’t good enough before the pandemic. Too many people are waiting far too long for diagnosis and treatment so this must be addressed.”
He called for the Scottish Government in invest in equipment and in training staff “so the NHS can clear backlogs, speed up diagnosis and give cancer patients the best chances of surviving their disease”.
But he warned: “If swift action isn’t taken, our fear is that cancer survival in Scotland could go backwards.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, also voiced concern, saying the statistics “clearly show that Scotland faces a ticking timebomb of cancer cases due to the impact of the pandemic”.
She said: “Early diagnosis is key to survival, but fewer and fewer cases are being caught early.
“We know that many screening programmes are not back up and running at full capacity – this needs to change. ”
Baillie continued: “We are facing a perfect storm of cancer cases due to the impact of the pandemic and the SNP’s failure to re-start cancer services swiftly enough.
“We need immediate action to get cancer treatment and screening back on track or else lives will be lost.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said: “Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to a patient’s chances of survival so these figures are incredibly concerning.
“The Scottish Government need to undertake rapid work to assess the scale of the challenge. The NHS urgently needs fresh funds and resources, the Government cannot let the knock-on effects of their poor pandemic management do even more damage to people’s health.”