New UK universities study finds bowel cancer diagnosis drop

A new study, encompassing research from UK institutions including the universities of Leeds, Oxford and Newcastle, has found a sharp drop in bowel cancer diagnoses since the first coronavirus lockdown.

According to experts, the number of people being diagnosed with the disease in England fell significantly between April and October 2020 with around 3,500 fewer patients given the diagnosis than expected.

This has been flagged as a concern due to the likelihood of bowel cancer being more curable in the early stages, with these results suggesting there could be future unnecessary deaths.

The results of the study, where researchers compared an average month in 2019 with April 2020 at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, found that:

  • monthly referrals by GPs to clinics for possible bowel cancer investigation fell by 63%
  • colonoscopies saw a 92% drop
  • the monthly number of people with confirmed bowel cancer referred for treatment reduced by 22%
  • the number of bowel cancer-related operations fell by 31%.

It’s claimed that the study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK and Yorkshire Cancer Research, is the first to focus on the impact of COVID-19 on bowel cancer diagnosis and management in England. Multiple parties collaborated, with further support also provided by Public Health England, Health Data Research UK, NHS Digital, the National Institute for Health Research Oxford Biomedical Research Centre and Bowel Cancer UK.

Study co-author Dr Katie Spencer, from the University of Leeds, said: “As a result of the coronavirus pandemic first wave, the NHS National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme was paused, and surgical capacity to treat patients was limited.

“It is very concerning that the improvements we had been seeing because of the early detection of bowel cancer are likely to have been set back during this time, and we need to ensure that patients continue to come forward so we can keep making progress in fighting this disease.”

Lead author, Professor Eva Morris from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford also spoke of “serious disruption” of identification and treatment, and the consequences on survival rates.

However, Leeds researchers were said to be ‘encouraged’ at how quickly the NHS adapted its services, for example by ‘focusing care towards radiotherapy treatment’. While another new study, led by Professor David Sebag-Montefiore of the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust provided specific recommendations for how to treat rectal cancer during the pandemic.

Researchers continue to monitor bowel cancer data, amid the latest surge of COVID-19 and huge pressure being placed on both primary and secondary healthcare settings across the country, to ‘help ensure’ that the problem of ‘undetected and untreated colorectal cancer’ is being addressed.

You can find the results from the study published in The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology.