Scots are being urged to check for cancer symptoms amid fears of nearly 4000 “missing” cases.
Cancer Research UK has launched a campaign with cancer survivors calling for people to seek medical help if they have any symptoms and use screening services.
It follows analysis of NHS Scotland statistics suggesting that an estimated 3900 fewer patients started cancer treatment in 2020 compared to 2019.
Of those, approximately a quarter would have been forecast to be breast cancer sufferers.
The charity’s campaign features mother-of-four Lynsey Ritchie who was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer almost two years ago after noticing pain and a lump under her arm.
The 44-year-old from Denny, Stirlingshire, said: “I can totally understand that people might not want to go to their doctor because of Covid.
“I could see how they could be put off and I do worry that I probably would have done the same if I’d found a lump in the last year.
“That feels really scary because if I hadn’t gone to my GP when I did then I wouldn’t be here today.
“The cancer I was diagnosed with was aggressive and, although I went to my doctor as soon as I found a lump, it had already spread. If I had waited, wondering whether to bother the doctor, it could have been too late.
“I’m lucky because I responded well to treatment and so I’m in remission. I feel so very blessed to be here for my boys. And they’re blessed to still have me. If I hadn’t gone to the doctor, things might have been very different.”
Ritchie, who is mother to Cailean, aged nine, Brodie, seven, Darragh, five, and Odhran, three, added: “Covid hasn’t made cancer go away.
“A cancer diagnosis is life-changing but it doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence.
“I’d say to anyone if you’re worried about something please take that step and go and see your doctor. Nine times out of ten, it won’t be anything to worry about but it’ll be better to know than to sit at home fretting about the unknown.”
Andy Glyde, Cancer Research UK’s senior external affairs manager for Scotland, said: “Last year’s pause in breast cancer screening services, people putting off contacting their GP and the backlog of patients waiting for a diagnosis after having noticed a symptom, may have contributed to these ‘missing cancers’.
“Clearing the backlog of people waiting for tests will mean tackling staff shortages and investing in equipment to ensure cancer services are fit for the future.
“The NHS in Scotland also needs the capacity to treat people when they do finally enter the system.”
He added: “It’s important that those with symptoms contact their GP and consider screening when invited. Doctors want to hear from them. And if you are finding it difficult to get an appointment, do keep trying.
“In most cases it won’t be cancer but it’s best to get it checked out because diagnosing cancer at an earlier stage means treatment is more likely to be successful.”
Scottish Conservative public health spokesman, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, suggested fewer patients starting cancer treatment should be a “wake-up call over the scale of the challenge facing us in the next few years”.
He said: “It is not just cancer that is suffering but all treatment times and we must have more targeted resources dedicated towards remobilising Scotland’s NHS if we are to catch these missing [diagnoses] and tackle lengthy treatment wait times.
“The Scottish Conservatives have argued for a clinician-led, ring-fenced funding pot with the sole remit of bringing treatment times under control.
“People already faced long waits before Covid but, now, the queues for essential treatments are growing at a startling rate.”
Scottish Labour’s health and Covid recovery spokeswoman, Jackie Baillie, said: “These stark figures highlight the scale of the crisis we are facing in cancer care.
“The potential impact of the pandemic on cancer treatment has been clear for a long time now, but there is still no plan in place to address the backlog.
“Lynsey Ritchie’s case highlights just how important early intervention is, but without a catch-up plan in place other women may not even know they need treatment.
“The promised rapid diagnostic centres must be rolled out urgently, along with an increase in staff and processing capacity to clear the screenings backlog within a year.
“The SNP cannot waste any more time when lives are on the line.”