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More than 2,500 cancer diagnoses slip through the COVID-19 pandemic cracks in Victoria, sparking fears of a possible ‘cancer spike’ to come

Monday 1 March, 2021

It is estimated that approximately 2,500 cancers may have gone undiagnosed in Victoria over just six and a half months during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, data published by Cancer Council Victoria in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) today has revealed.

Modelling by the Victorian Cancer Registry at the Cancer Council Victoria, estimates that 2,530 cancer diagnoses were missed between 1 April 2020 and 15 October 2020, based on the registry receiving 5,446 (10%) fewer pathology notifications than expected over the period.

The impact of this number of potentially missed diagnoses is unknown, but any delays would have the greatest impact on patients later diagnosed with more aggressive cancers, with experts concerned of a future ‘cancer spike’.

Director of the Victorian Cancer Registry Professor Sue Evans said any delay in cancer diagnosis for Victorians could mean their cancer is detected at a later stage, meaning potentially fewer treatment options and worse outcomes.

“Our modelling indicates that it’s possible that approximately 2,500 Victorians will not only be faced with the prospect of being diagnosed with cancer, but with a later stage cancer than they possibly may have been, and this would be devastating for patients, families and loved ones.

“This potential spike in later-stage cancers could increase demand on our health system, as well as on supportive care services.”

Professor Evans said the most significant decrease in pathology notifications, and therefore likely missed diagnoses, occurred for head and neck, prostate and breast cancer and melanoma, in older Victorians, in men, and in people living in higher socio-economic areas.

CEO of Cancer Council Victoria Todd Harper stressed the importance for all Victorians to get checked if they notice any changes or have symptoms, as well as taking part in cancer screening.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in up to a 30% decline in certain cancer diagnostic procedures and an 18% decline in cancer treatments in Australia between January and June 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

“As we emerge into a state of ‘COVID-normal’ it is imperative for us all to encourage and support each other to prioritise our health. If you have been invited to participate in a cancer screening program, please do not delay,” Mr Harper urged.

“Cancer screening saves lives - it is one of the most effective ways to detect the early signs of cancer, when successful treatment is more likely.”

We should also think about taking steps to reduce our risk of developing cancer, including quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy body weight and being SunSmart.

Mr Harper said it is a testament to the timeliness of the Victorian Cancer Registry that these data have been assembled so quickly, assisting plans for recovery.

“We are lucky to have one the timeliest cancer registries in the world in Victoria, which is thankfully having a very tangible impact in helping us chart our recovery out of COVID-19.”

In 2019, 35,924 Victorians were diagnosed with cancer. Anyone affected by cancer who may need information or support is encouraged to contact Cancer Council Victoria’s cancer nurses on 13 11 20.