A TSUNAMI of deaths is about to hit – and I don’t mean a second wave of Covid-19.
I am talking about cancer deaths.
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In lockdown, I have travelled the country, safely and with my doctors’ support, investigating the pandemic’s toll on millions of cancer patients for the BBC’s Panorama programme.
When Covid-19 struck, cancer treatment stopped. Operations were postponed and screening paused.
We stayed at home and protected the NHS. We flattened the curve but the knock-on effect was a death sentence for thousands of cancer patients.
Coronavirus has claimed more than 44,000 lives here so far.
Each year, 165,000 people die of cancer — or 450 people a day.
Experts I spoke to fear we could see an additional 35,000 cancer deaths due to the pandemic.
Two million screening tests for breast, bowel and cervical cancer have been missed. Urgent cancer referrals have plummeted 60 per cent, putting more lives on the line.
Kelly Smith, 31, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, was one of my best friends — and a life lost too soon.
We met when she messaged me on social media a few months after I was diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer. She died of the same disease on June 13 this year after her chemo was stopped.
So many people denied life-saving treatment
We bonded over thinning hair, dodgy chemo skin and a shared love of shoes.
She was stunning, brave, bonkers, hilarious and kind — a mum to son Finnley, six; and also a beloved daughter, sister and friend.
But at the end of her life, she was angry and scared — and she blamed Covid-19.
Kelly was 28 when a colonoscopy revealed a 9in tumour invading her bowel in April 2017.
Her stepdad Craig told me: “She was being sick a lot, had diarrhoea and had found blood in her poo about six months earlier.
“She had many trips to A&E and was told it was an infection, anaemia, Crohn’s disease. No one ever said that it might be cancer.”
Kelly agreed to be interviewed for Monday night’s Panorama episode, Britain’s Cancer Crisis, to help show how the pandemic has impacted patients like us. She believed that Covid-19 would shorten her life.
Just a week after spending her last Christmas with her family, Kelly found out the cancer had spread to her small intestine, her pancreas, lymph nodes, liver, spine, stomach and brain.
Craig said: “She was riddled with it. She started chemo again and that was when Covid struck.”
In March, her chemotherapy was stopped. And just weeks later, tests showed her cancer was back. “I’m angry at Covid and that I got put on this break because I don’t think I should have,” Kelly told us in our final interview, shortly before she died.
“I’m terrified — absolutely terrified. I don’t want to die.
“I feel like I’ve got so much more to do.”
The last time I spoke to her, on the phone, she asked me when the programme would be going on air. That question haunts me because Kelly did not live long enough to find out.
She joked: “It had better be quick. I don’t think I’ll see it otherwise.”
I told her she was amazing for sharing her story and that by doing so, she would save lives.
She asked me, “Really?” — not aware of her own bravery by opening up during her darkest days.
I told her I loved her, put down the phone and ran to the river near my home in South London, where I sobbed.
I knew that was the last time we would speak to each other.
I had to wait for her to die, praying she wasn’t in pain.
What makes losing Kelly even harder is that nagging question at the back of my mind: “Would she still be here without Covid-19?”
The reality is Kelly’s cancer, like mine, was incurable.
Would she have lived for ever? No. We all knew that. But would she have been able to see her son go back to school?
Could they have gone on one more holiday together? Most likely, yes. When you are in your thirties and you have incurable cancer, every single day counts.
Covid-19 stole the most precious thing from my friend: Time.
By the end of April, tests showed her cancer was growing and there was nothing more doctors could do.
Kelly didn’t want to know her prognosis.
Only her mum Mandy was allowed to know she had between two and four weeks to live.
“Kelly was so bloody-minded,” Craig told me. “Doctors gave her two to four weeks but she survived for six, just to show them.”
Hours before Kelly died, her family were forced to make the agonising decision to move her into a local hospice. Coronavirus meant only Mandy could be by her side as Kelly slipped away.
First Covid stopped Kelly’s chemo — then it denied her family the right to be with her at the end. Kelly’s heartbreaking story is not unique.
Almost every day since lockdown, I have received messages from patients worried about tests and treatment being cancelled.
I feel guilty that so many people have been denied life-saving treatment. I was lucky.
Soon after lockdown began, blood tests showed my cancer markers were up and I was straight back in hospital for two weeks of targeted radiotherapy.
Professor Pat Price, a clinical oncologist, told me: “We’re looking at a huge number of avoidable deaths — patients we can cure.
“It has been safe to give radio-therapy during Covid. The machines are here, we just haven’t been able to switch them on properly. We’ve got to get on with this. We need to save lives.”
Lawyer Mary Smith, who represents patients, said: “The impact has been tremendous, really harrowing for patients. I’ve had people who have had chemo cancelled, young parents who have died. We’re going to see a tsunami of cases.
“One oncologist told me even if we operated at 125 per cent capacity, it would take us more than a year to clear the backlog.”
Treatment isn’t the only problem. In this country we screen for breast, bowel and cervical cancers.
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, told me as many as two million screening appointments have been missed in lockdown.
She said: “Thousands of cases will have missed the opportunity to be diagnosed at the earliest possible state, when treatment is most effective.”
Kelly and I were passionate about communicating the message that early diagnosis saves lives. For years I have worked with The Sun to raise awareness of the issue as part of the No Time 2 Lose bowel cancer campaign.
Now, more than ever, that message rings true.
Urgent cancer referrals have dropped by 60 per cent in England since the start of the pandemic.
GPs made 79,573 of these urgent referrals in April — down from 199,217 in the same month last year.
Dr Gary Marlowe, an East London GP, puts that down to a number of factors — not least the effectiveness of the messaging to “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
But another key reason is people are too scared to see their GP or go into hospital for fear of catching Covid.
Even when doing an urgent referral, Dr Marlowe said, one patient was sent back, having been told a scoring system was applied and they did not meet the threshold.
“It’s just appalling,” he said.
“For a scoring system to be used sets a very dangerous precedent.”
We said our final goodbyes last week at Kelly’s funeral, smiling through the tears as her sparkly, bright-pink coffin passed by. I promised Kelly her story would help change lives — and I intend to keep that promise.
Stepdad Craig said: “Kelly was adamant that just because you are 20 or 25 or 30, it does not mean you can’t get cancer. We’ve been overwhelmed at the messages we have had from strangers telling us they were diagnosed or even cured because of Kelly. It is her legacy and we are incredibly proud.”
Now the Government must act and put in place a plan to tackle this unfolding cancer crisis.
They have pledged to use the Nightingale hospitals to help with the cancer backlog. That is a good start.
But we can all do our bit too — by checking ourselves regularly for the signs of cancer.
Early diagnosis saves lives, so make sure you are one of the lucky ones.
I wish Kelly had been. I wish I could tell her I love her and thank her for dancing with me through the darkness.
I wish she could see Finnley grow up.
I am so proud I got to call Kelly my friend. I wish I could tell her the programme is airing tonight.
Covid-19 has robbed us of so much already.
But the collateral damage is just as terrifying.
We owe it to Kelly, and to the tens of thousands of other lives stolen too soon, to act now to flatten the cancer curve — before it becomes the next pandemic.
- Panorama: Britain’s Cancer Crisis is on BBC1 tomorrow night at 7.30pm.
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