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The on-going impact of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis and treatment – is it time to go private?

By Elizabeth Paterson, a medical negligence lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

As we approach the festive period it’s so easy for many of us to get carried away (quite rightly) with socialising, gifting, indulgence, and celebrations. For others, however, Christmas can be a very hard time of year.

On New Years’ Eve 2016, a dear friend of mine lost his tragic battle with bowel cancer. John was just 34 and he left behind his beautiful wife Katie and two young boys, Joseph and Teddy. One cannot help but stop and think (with a heavy heart) of those who are suffering at this time of year either as a result of a cancer diagnosis, ongoing treatment, or mourning the loss of a loved one.

Concerning symptoms of bowel cancer

My friend John was young, healthy and active. He had never taken a sick day in his life. He loved his football, socialising with his friends at the pub, and his family dearly. In early 2015 John had some concerning symptoms – a change in bowel movements and a slight bleed. Unbeknownst to him these were early signs of his bowel condition. 

Sadly (as many men in John’s circumstances might) he didn’t pay too much attention to them. After some time he did visit his GP, but was reassured that a fit and young man like John would not have bowel cancer. His symptoms were attributed to IBS. A referral for a colonoscopy was made, but it was going to take several months.

Eighteen months of heartbreak

Eventually John decided, with encouragement from his wife, to book a private colonoscopy – this was luckily funded by his employer. It took place immediately, as one would expect from the private sector. In the same week Katie and John had happily attended the 12 week scan for their youngest son Teddy, at that point unborn. Joseph was only one. 

A few days later John was then given the devastating test results that confirmed he had advanced bowel cancer. The heartache of the next 18 months that followed was, as you can probably imagine, unbearable for John’s family and close friends.

John’s death in 2016 may well not have been prevented, even with an earlier diagnosis. But this leads me think…why did John have to rely on a privately funded scan to get his diagnosis? With the on-going Covid-19 pandemic and inevitable strain on the NHS, there are growing (and very valid) concerns that the UK will see a dramatic upturn in cases where there has been a delayed diagnosis of cancer. 

Frontline health services being scaled down for booster jabs

We already know that frontline services are being scaled down as a result of the rush for booster jabs, for example. One can only imagine the impact this will have on prognosis, treatment and potentially avoidable fatalities. It’s really worrying.

This also leads me think; will we see a dramatic rise in reliance on the private sector? What would you do if you were in John’s position, for example? It seems to make complete sense to me that if private services are available that we make use of them – it’s a small price to pay, after all.

Support available to those affected by bowel cancer

Since 2016 John’s wife Katie has worked tirelessly to spread the good word of Bowel Cancer UK and raise awareness. Her message is simple: “When you’re in your 30s, you don’t expect to have cancer. Check your symptoms, check your poo. Be aware. Use the NHS. Use private services if you need to.”

I cannot echo this enough. In the context of this challenging time, we must remain vigilant as individuals. Don’t ignore the symptoms, no matter how trivial they may seem.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and their families following a cancer diagnosis at our dedicated cancer claims section.