A combination of the backlog in patients not treated during the pandemic, cases not identified during routine screening and a drop in research funding may slow down the “huge” positive strides Scotland has made in recent decades, Cancer Research UK warned.
Based on Public Health Scotland data, the charity estimates that 1,000 fewer breast cancer cases were diagnosed between April and December last year, compared to the same months in 2019.
An estimated 3,900 fewer people started treatment for all cancer types in Scotland during that period, the charity said.
Andy Glyde, Cancer Research UK’s senior external affairs manager for Scotland, said: “This new analysis gives a worrying insight into some serious issues that now exist within our health services due to the pandemic.”
He added: “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.”
Breast cancer survivor Lynsey Ritchie urged anyone worried about symptoms to visit their GP.
The 44-year-old mother of four, from Denny, Stirlingshire, said she owes her life to the treatment she received after being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer almost two years ago.
She 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.”
She added: “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.”
Scottish Conservative shadow minister for public health, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, said: “The news that 1,000 fewer people have started breast cancer treatment must be a wake-up call over the scale of the challenge facing us in the next few years.
“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’ diagnosis and tackle lengthy treatment wait times.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton labelled the figure a "tragedy in the making".
He said: “While it is understandable that the pandemic had an impact on testing, it must be noted that the Scottish Government standard – that no one should be waiting more than six weeks for a diagnostic test – hasn’t been met for over ten years.”
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health and Covid recovery spokesperson, said the 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,” she said.