Lung cancer survival rates have improved in Bedfordshire, figures show – but experts fear the impact of the coronavirus pandemic may have already reversed years of progress.
The UK Lung Cancer Coalition has warned that patients with the disease are particularly impacted by "the catastrophe that is Covid-19", due to the similarity of symptoms and increased pressure on respiratory services.
Public Health England data shows between 2014 and 2018, 37.9 per cent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer in Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes lived another year.
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That was below the national average of 39.4 per cent, but a vast improvement on 27.6 per cent in 2006-10 – the period with the earliest available data.
The figures cover patients aged between 15 and 99 within the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes sustainability and transformation partnership (STP) area – a collaboration between local NHS services and councils aimed at improving health care.
In a report, Professor Mick Peake, chairman of the UKLCC's clinical advisory group, said "fear of engaging with health services, halting the national programme of lung cancer screening pilots, and restricted access to diagnostic tests" have contributed to a drop in urgent GP referrals in England.
"Government guidance to stay at home with a cough, a key symptom of lung cancer, has caused further confusion," he added.
Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK, with low survival rates compared to other cancer types.
In Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes, the one-year survival rate for prostate cancer is 97 per cent, and 96.9 per cent for breast cancer.
Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at charity Cancer Research UK, said "there is still a long way to go" in improving lung cancer survival rates, despite good progress.
She added: "We’re extremely concerned that Covid-19 will negatively affect cancer outcomes because of delays in diagnosis and treatment and particularly for lung cancer, because of the similarity in some symptoms.
"Additionally, diagnosis and treatment can use many of the same resources such as tests like chest x-rays and doctors and nurses that specialise in lung conditions."
An NHS spokeswoman said an improvement in survival rates over the past decade reflected "the hard work of NHS staff in detecting more cancers at an earlier stage".
“While some people put off seeking care at the peak of the pandemic, our services are open and safe to use," she said.
She added that anyone with symptoms of lung cancer, which can include a continuous cough for three or more weeks, breathing difficulties and continued tiredness, should contact their GP.