Covid Scotland: No increase in cancer deaths because of pandemic, report finds

Scotland did not see a significant increase in cancer deaths last year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a report has found.

According to new analysis of the impact of the pandemic on cancer outcomes by Public Health Scotland, cancer deaths in 2020 were in line with expected and long-term trends.

Cancer charities have welcomed the news, but warned the pandemic may have a delayed impact that has yet to appear in mortality data.

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NHS staff shortages are causing longer waiting times for diagnosis and treatment, said Cancer Research UK. Macmillan Cancer Support said the pandemic has led to a risk of people dying at home without proper support.

Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
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Some 16,184 people died of cancer in Scotland in 2020, excluding non-melanoma skin cancers.

While the number of cancer deaths has increased in the past decade, the risk of dying from cancer has fallen by 11 per cent. This is due to an ageing population, PHS said, as older people are more likely to develop cancer.

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Cancer Research UK (CRUK) warned the impact of the pandemic may not be seen for years to come.

“We’re worried the devastating impact of the pandemic could see survival go backwards for the first time,” said David Ferguson, CRUK public affairs manager in Scotland.

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"However, we might not see this reflected in the data for several years as delays in diagnosis and treatment due to the pandemic won’t have an immediate impact on deaths.

“For many common cancers, the chance of successful treatment increases significantly when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, so it’s essential the NHS has the capacity and workforce to test and diagnose cancer.

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“Staff shortages are making it more difficult for the NHS to improve earlier diagnosis. A clear road map on exactly how workforce gaps will be tackled is urgently needed.

"Investment is also needed for the right equipment so the NHS can clear backlogs, speed up diagnosis and give cancer patients the best chance of more time with their loved ones.”

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The report also found little impact on the difference between cancer mortality rates in the most and least deprived areas.

In 2020, the mortality rate for all cancers combined was 74 per cent higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived, while in 2016-19 on average this was 79 per cent higher.

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Janice Preston, Macmillan’s Head of Partnerships in Scotland, said it was “very concerning” to see death rates that are so much higher in deprived communities.

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"We need to understand the complex factors behind this and see action taken urgently to combat it,” she said.

"This must include having the right workforce in place to get people diagnosed as early as possible, as well as to ensure the right support is available for people during and after treatment.”

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The effect of the pandemic on cancer mortality is complex, the report notes, and may not appear immediately.

Dr Helen Rippon, chief executive of Edinburgh-based charity Worldwide Cancer Research, said: “It’s immensely encouraging to see that a person’s overall risk of dying from cancer in Scotland continues to fall, like it has done for the last ten years or more.

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"This is real testament to the power of discovery research, starting new cancer cures, and saving the lives of so many people today.”

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