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Dr Toral Gathani leads a study into the scale of the diagnostic delays in England.

Survival of patients with breast cancer has increased over the past few decades so that over 85% of people now survive the disease for 5-years or more in England. This is in part due to the improvements in breast cancer diagnosis so that only 15% are diagnosed in the latest two stages of the disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected cancer diagnoses but the scale of the impact on different cancer sites was not known. Published in the British Journal of Cancer, Dr Toral Gathani (Nuffield Department of Population Health), together with colleagues from St James’s University Hospital, Leeds and the Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, analysed NHS England Cancer Waiting Time Data for breast cancer.

By comparing the first 6 months of 2020 with the same period in 2019, the team found that referrals for suspected breast cancer had decreased by 28% and the number of patients receiving the first treatment following a breast cancer diagnosis reduced by 16%. While this is a substantial decrease, this impact is not as great as feared and is largely due to the suspension of the national breast cancer screening programme during the early months of the pandemic. By comparison, urgent referrals have not decreased to the same extent.

More time will need to pass until the full extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on breast cancer services is realised.