SNP ministers have been warned not to “waste any more time when lives are on the line” after new analysis revealed that almost 1,000 fewer Scots have started breast cancer treatment in the last year.
The findings from Cancer Research UK, which used NHS Scotland statistics, also show that an estimated 3,900 fewer people had started treatment for all types of cancer since the pandemic struck.
Breast cancer represents almost a quarter of these missing cases – over 70 per cent more than what would be expected – prompting fears that progress against fighting the disease is in jeopardy due to the impact of Covid-19 on services and research.
Launching a campaign to urge Scots to check for cancer symptoms and seek medical help, the charity has highlighted the story of Lynsey Ritchie, a mother-of-three who was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer almost two years ago after noticing pain and a lump under her arm.
The 44-year-old from Denny, Stirlingshire, said that while she understands that people might not want to go to their doctor because of Covid, “if I hadn’t gone to my GP when I did then I wouldn’t be here today”.
"I’m lucky because I responded well to treatment and so I’m in remission. I feel so very blessed to be here for my boys. And they’re blessed to still have me. If I hadn’t gone to the doctor, things might have been very different,” she said.
Lynsey Ritchie said if she hadn't gone to her GP she wouldn't be here today
Andy Glyde, Cancer Research UK’s senior external affairs manager for Scotland, said that as well as Scots putting off seeing their GP, the pause in breast cancer screening services last year alongside the backlog of patients waiting for a diagnosis may have contributed to these “missing cancers”.
"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,” he said, warning that NHS Scotland also “needs the capacity to treat people when they do finally enter the system”.
SNP ministers have come under mounting pressure in recent months over the “national emergency” of Scotland’s cancer waiting times backlog, with Scottish Labour repeatedly calling for the rollout of rapid diagnostic centres to be sped up.
“These stark figures highlight the scale of the crisis we are facing in cancer care,” said deputy leader and health spokesperson Jackie Baillie.
“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.”
Ms Baillie demanded that the “promised rapid diagnostic centres must be rolled out urgently” along with increases in staff and processing capacity to clear the screenings backlog within a year.
“The SNP cannot waste any more time when lives are on the line,” she warned.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have pointed out that although the pandemic has had an “understandable” impact on testing, the SNP’s own target that no one should wait more than six weeks for a diagnostic test hasn’t been met for over ten years.
“This is a tragedy in the making. It’s time for an NHS recovery plan to get our health service fighting fit and help people to recover from the pandemic,” said health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton.
Scottish Conservative public health spokesman, Dr Sandesh Gulhane, suggested fewer patients starting cancer treatment should be a "wake-up call over the scale of the challenge facing us in the next few years" and argued for a “clinician-led, ring-fenced funding pot with the sole remit of bringing treatment times under control”.
“People already faced long waits before Covid but now, the queues for essential treatments are growing at a startling rate.”
The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.