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Ovarian cancer treatments must restart immediately, charity warns

Thousands of women with ovarian cancer have suffered delays to treatment and a lack of support during the Covid-19 crisis, a charity has warned.

Target Ovarian Cancer found in a survey that 54 per cent of diagnosed women said their cancer therapy had been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.

There are around 41,000 women in the UK living with the disease and a further 7,400 get diagnosed with it every year, according to the charity.

When coronavirus hit Britain, NHS hospitals acted fast to empty their beds and shut down operating theatres to make room for Covid-19 patients. Many routine ops — cancer treatments included — were cancelled or delayed.

Eight out of 10 women living with ovarian cancer said the lockdown, first imposed on March 23 to contain the outbreak, had damaged their mental health.

Many people with cancer were put into the ‘shielding’ group and told they should stay at home throughout April and May, and patients claimed they did not feel as supported or able to speak with their doctors during that time.

The charity is calling for scans and treatments to be restarted as normal as soon as possible.

Its warning comes as cancer experts fear thousands of people put off getting dangerous symptoms checked out during lockdown because they were afraid of going to hospital, and that many people will die prematurely because of delays to treatment. 

There are around 41,000 women in the UK living with the disease, the charity said, and a further 7,400 get diagnosed with it every year. Around two thirds are diagnosed late (stock image of ovarian cancer cells)

There are around 41,000 women in the UK living with the disease, the charity said, and a further 7,400 get diagnosed with it every year. Around two thirds are diagnosed late (stock image of ovarian cancer cells)

Annwen Jones, the chief executive of Target Ovarian Cancer, said: ‘It’s hard to overstate the difficulties faced by women with ovarian cancer during this pandemic. 

‘We must not let them down as the NHS recovers. 

‘It is urgent that we now see comprehensive plans and a timeline for the full restoration of diagnostic, treatment and support services, and awareness campaigns to encourage women to contact their GPs if they experience symptoms. 

‘I WAS LEFT IN LIMBO AFTER CHEMOTHERAPY’

One woman with ovarian cancer said her treatment was suspended because of the lockdown and she wasn’t sure if she needed more treatment or not.

Amy Van Wyk, 38, from Surrey, began chemotherapy before the country had to shut down to stop the spread of Covid-19.

But, left highly vulnerable because the chemo had weakened her immune system, she became unable to visit hospital and unsure what she should do next.

Ms Van Wyk said: ‘It felt like I was in limbo. I didn’t know what was coming next. 

Amy Van Wyk, 38, had only just had chemotherapy when lockdown hit and found that she didn't know what to next

Amy Van Wyk, 38, had only just had chemotherapy when lockdown hit and found that she didn’t know what to next

‘I couldn’t go into the hospital because it was too risky. I was left not knowing if I needed further treatment at this time, when it was going to start again, or even if it would start again.’

‘This is the only way to avoid worse outcomes and a devastating mental toll on women.’

The charity has published a report calling for cancer services to be restored to offer women quick, potentially life-saving treatment. 

Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed late (in two thirds of cases) and any time lost in waiting for treatment could be an opportunity for the disease to get worse.

Because of this, delays to treatment caused by coronavirus rules and shutdowns may be causing health damage and serious stress for women with the illness.

Urgent doctors’ referrals for suspected cancer have fallen by 60 per cent since before the epidemic and waiting times for treatment got longer.

Target Ovarian Cancer’s report found that many women saw their treatments change or get completely suspended because of changes to how the NHS was working.

Many surgeries have been delayed because ovarian cancer operations – known as debulking operations – can be long and complex and mean patients need to stay in hospital and on intensive care wards after the procedure.

More than a quarter of women (27 per cent) also said they could not get the same care and support as they were able to before the pandemic, while 80 per cent said their emotional and mental wellbeing had suffered.    

Target Ovarian Cancer’s report has called for the diagnostic pathway – the route from seeing a doctor to getting diagnosed and treated for cancer – to be shortened.

This would save women valuable time, the charity said, adding: ‘Treatment for ovarian cancer must restart as quickly and safely as possible and steps should be taken to ensure that surgery in particular can continue in the event of a second wave of the virus.’

It added that psychological support must also be kept in place for cancer patients who face the devastation of having to cope with potentially terminal illness.

The report comes after NHS statistics revealed last week that cancer waiting times in England hit an all-time high in England during the coronavirus crisis.

Fewer than half of people (47.9 per cent) who got diagnosed with cancer after a screening appointment managed to get treatment within the target time of two months.

In May hundreds of people had to wait for more than eight weeks between being told they had cancer – likely breast, bowel or cervical cancer – and getting therapy.

The proportion of people getting treated within two months of an urgent referral from their doctor, for any type of cancer, also fell to the lowest in at least a decade. 

And one in every 16 patients (6.1 per cent) was left waiting for at least a month to start treatment after a doctor had decided they needed it.

Doctors and cancer experts fear the drastic reduction in cancer treatments during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw hospitals emptied out, will be devastating.

The consequences of delayed treatment and people not getting diagnosed as early as they normally would will lead to thousands of extra cancer deaths in the UK, they warn.

The NHS, Government, charities and experts are now urging people who think they have cancer symptoms to get checked out as soon as possible.  








WHAT IS OVARIAN CANCER AND WHAT ARE ITS SYMPTOMS?

Ovarian cancer affects more than 7,000 women in the UK each year and there are an estimated 41,000 women living with it.

It is a cancer of the ovaries, which are part of the female reproductive system that contain their eggs. There are two ovaries and both are attached to the womb. Cancer on the ovaries can spread to the nearby bowel and bladder.

It is the fifth most common cancer among women, and is most common in women who have had the menopause but it can affect women of any age. 

About 66 per cent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the more advanced stages of the disease.

At the time of diagnosis, 60 per cent of ovarian cancers will have already spread to other parts of the body, bringing the five-year survival rate down to 30 per cent from 90 per cent in the earliest stage.

It’s diagnosed so late because its location in the pelvis means the symptoms can be vague and difficult to recognise, particularly early on.

They’re often the same as symptoms of less serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • Feeling constantly bloated 
  • A swollen tummy
  • Discomfort in your tummy or pelvic area 
  • Feeling full quickly when eating, or loss of appetite 
  • Needing to pee more often or more urgently than normal

See your GP if:

You’ve been feeling bloated most days for the last three weeks 

You have other symptoms of ovarian cancer that won’t go away – especially if you’re over 50 or have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer, as you may be at a higher risk 

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