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Delays in the diagnosis of bowel cancer and the impact of COVID-19

Natasha Sherry and Kirsten Wall from the clinical negligence department discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on the diagnosis of bowel cancer.

Posted on 17 September 2020

A delay in diagnosis of any cancer can have devastating implications for the chance of successful treatment, which is why it is so important that people recognise the early signs of cancer and do not delay in going to see their GP. National cancer screening programmes, which in the UK are run for breast, cervical and bowel cancer, also play a crucial role in identifying cancer at an early stage. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, NHS resources have quite justifiably been focused on dealing with patients suffering from the virus or those who are most seriously ill. However, concerns have been raised that the number of cancer-related deaths could start to rise if attention does not start being directed back to diagnostic tests and treatments required by non-coronavirus patients.

For example, bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the UK. Each year in the UK, there are around 16,300 deaths from bowel cancer, which equates to 315 each week (figures taken from the years 2015 – 2017).

In normal times, a screening programme operates to detect bowel cancer at an early stage to try to ensure the best chance of successful treatment. Research from Cancer Research UK indicates that two to three per cent of people who have bowel cancer screening have a definitive positive (abnormal) result in any given screening round.

However, as a result of COVID-19, screening tests such as those for bowel cancer were paused to allow for re-deployment of staff to support critical services and to prevent the spread of the virus.
The worry is that if these tests are not re-instated quickly enough, key opportunities to identify the presence of bowel cancer could be missed. I have represented many clients who have suffered as a result of a delay in diagnosis of cancer and know how vital a role these screening tests play in the successful treatment of cancer. 

A further concern is that, in an effort to relieve the pressures on the NHS and to try to prevent the spread of the virus, people experiencing symptoms indicative of cancer may not be attending their GP. The importance of being seen by a GP and quickly referred for further diagnostic tests where necessary cannot be understated when it comes to cancer.

I recently represented a lady who was just 31 years old when she began experiencing rectal bleeding when opening her bowels, one of the signs of bowel cancer. Although she attended her GP so that her symptoms could be investigated, unfortunately the bleeding was not identified as being attributable to bowel cancer. My client, aged just 34, was eventually diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer.  Although my client underwent extensive treatment, including chemo radiation and removal of part of her bowel, her cancer was too advanced to be successfully treated and sadly, she died.

This case demonstrates how crucial it is for a diagnosis to be made before the cancer becomes more advanced, when treatment may need to be more extensive and the outcome is less certain.
Thankfully, it is now being reported that some screening programmes are beginning to restart, although there will most likely be a backlog of people waiting for appointments.

In the meantime, if people have concerns about unusual symptoms, they should not delay in contacting their GP for further advice.


Kirsten Wall
Birth injury Brain injury Cerebral palsy Inquests Spinal injury Surgical negligence

Kirsten Wall

Kirsten specialises exclusively in medical negligence claims