Cancer service battle against surge in urgent referrals

Ruth Bennett, Jane Crocket and Chloe Smith

Ruth Bennett, Jane Crocker and Norwich North MP have spoken about the impact of the pandemic on cancer patients. - Credit: Ruth Bennett/Keeping Abreast/Neil Didsbury

A breast cancer survivor has said she cannot "imagine the terror" of having to wait for treatment, as it is revealed less than 40pc of patients were seen within two weeks of an urgent referral.  

Norfolk and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group (N&WCCG) report 39.7pc of breast cancer patients were seen within two weeks, dropping to 7.8pc at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, against a target of 93pc.

The impact on cancer services will be discussed at Norfolk County Council's Health and Overview Scrutiny on Thursday, July 15 with the CCG reporting a surge in urgent cancer referrals from GPs leading to pressures on diagnostic services such as imagining and endoscopy and cancer treatment capacity being reported.  

There was also a "noticeable decrease" in two-week waits for all cancers and breast cancer referrals and surgery carried out in 31 days in April, even though patient numbers were lower than in March. 


Cancer performance data will be discussed at a Norfolk County Council meeting next week.

An NNUH spokesman said extra clinics were being put on, adding: "The number of post-lockdown two-week wait referrals to our hospital continues to exceed previous levels and our teams are working hard to see patients as quickly as possible. 

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"The majority of patients are receiving their diagnosis within 28 days of a two-week wait cancer referral.” 

The James Paget University Hospital, Gorleston, was the only hospital to meet the majority of targets including the 93pc two-week referral for suspected cancer and breast cancer. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in King's Lynn, saw 90.6pc of breast cancer patients in April. 

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Also in April, 75.1pc of all urgent cancer referrals were seen within two weeks. This is down from 89.4pc the month before and against a target of 93pc.

There are also 32 cancer patients waiting more than 104 days for treatment. 

Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North. - Credit: Neil Didsbury

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith, who recently announced she had won her own breast cancer fight, urged people not to put off seeking treatment.

She said: "Even though there's a lot of people in need, please don't be put off.

"Having had cancer care during the pandemic, I want to thank the NHS for how fantastic they've been.  I've been in close touch with the N&N about the backlog the hospital now faces, and I fully support them and our local GPs in seeing as many patients in need, as fast as they can.  It's very important to have kept talking to cancer patients throughout the pandemic and beyond to reassure them about their care.

"The government has begun by ensuring that there is a billion pounds of funding to address backlogs in care caused by the pandemic.  This will pay for up to one million extra checks, scans and additional operations for those whose treatment has been delayed since the start of the pandemic."

Ruth Bennett, from Barham, near Thetford, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before the pandemic.

Ruth Bennett, from Barham, near Thetford, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before the pandemic. - Credit: Ruth Bennett

Ruth Bennett was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019 and said the recent referral figures had made her emotional.

Ms Bennett, from Barham, near Thetford, said the speed at which her lump was removed was important and long waits had an impact on not just the patient but their family.

The 56-year-old said: "When you are first diagnosed your world collapses, it's the words you dread hearing. Am I going to live? Am I going to get through it?

"What helped was knowing I was going for a scan the next week, it was bang, bang, bang, something every week.

"I want to cry. We're the United Kingdom. We are the creators of the coronavirus vaccine, why can't we see cancer patients, why can't they be treated? 

"I can't imagine the terror and fear for somebody waiting." 

To tackle backlogs, the CCG report said trusts has created one-stop clinics, operate weekend working and extended hours to reduce waiting times.

Maggie Tween, Norfolk and Waveney cancer programme manager, said it was working with the trusts, National Cancer Action Team and East of England Cancer Alliance to tackle the backlogs with patients prioritised on clinical need. 

She said: "The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is treatment will be successful, and the higher the chance of survival. So it’s vital people don’t delay seeking help with cancer symptoms.” 

The committee will meet on Thursday to discuss the impact of the pandemic on backlogs, waiting times within screening, diagnosis and treatment services and the knock on effect on patient outcomes.

How is it impacting patients? 

Jane Crockett, secretary of Keeping Abreast Norwich support group.

Jane Crockett, secretary of Keeping Abreast Norwich support group. - Credit: Keeping Abreast

Norwich-based cancer charity Keeping Abreast, which supports patients undergoing breast reconstruction has reported an increase in calls from patients that have had their surgery delayed or is upcoming. 

Jane Crockett, organiser of the charity’s Norwich support group, said a backlog for reconstruction surgery had been created as staff were reassigned to help on Covid wards and those offered a mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time are having the reconstruction surgery delayed to a later date. 

She said: “This is so that the amount of time taken up in the hospital theatres was kept to a minimum, so that other patients, such as those suffering from Covid-19, could also be treated.

“The team at the NNUH is absolutely fantastic and they are doing their best to get through the backlog of breast reconstruction operations now that restrictions are starting to lift, but this looks likely to take many months; again, a pattern that has been recreated across the UK.” 

The group has continued to operate peer to peer support remotely. 

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