Chief Medical Officer Gregor Smith admitted there is concern across the medical profession about the decline in Scots “stepping forward” to get checked out.
It comes as new research indicates that Britain faces the prospect of up to 35,000 excess deaths within the next 12 months as a result of delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cancer referrals in Scotland stand at 70 per cent of the level they were before the pandemic, although the situation has been improving in recent weeks.
And Dr Smith said today: “This is an area that I’ve been uneasy about over the last three months.
“I’d just try to encourage people to come forward if they have symptoms that they are worried about, to have those conversations with their clinicians.
“I know my colleagues are concerned about this as well. They’re just not seeing as many people stepping forward, discussing symptoms that are maybe of concern.
“It is an improving picture and I am encouraged by the fact that the number of referrals have increased, but they’re still not back to normal.
“So my message very clearly to the Scottish public just now is `please, if you’ve got symptoms that you’ve been holding onto, that you’ve been scared to speak about, speak to your clinicians about it. That’s what they are there for.’”
He added: “Often these will turn out to be nothing, but on a few occasions that they do need further investigation.
“Of that data that we’re looking at, one of the areas I particularly want to highlight is people who have new, chronic coughs that aren’t explained by any type of infection, whether Covid or anything else.
“If you start to cough up any blood in particular, please step forward and speak to your clinician about it, so that we can start to look into this for you and try to get to the bottom of your symptoms.”
The acting chief medical officer highlighted unexplained coughs after examining the data surrounding the decline in referrals in recent weeks.
“One of the areas where in particular where there has been a drop off in referrals has been where there’s a suspicion of lung cancer,” he added.
“I don’t believe that’s a natural decline - I suspect that there are people there with symptoms that they perhaps are apprehensive about coming forward with.”
A study conducted by DATA-CAN, the Health Care Research Hub (HDR UK) for Cancer, up to two million routine breast, bowel and cervical cancer screenings may have been missed throughout the Covid-19 crisis.
Researchers examined data from eight hospital trusts in modelling outcomes depending upon how long the delays continue.
Sharing the results with BBC Panorama, researchers warned that a worst-case scenario could see 35,000 more people dying of cancer by this time next year.
DATA-CAN’s scientific lead Professor Mark Lawler told the programme: “Anecdotally, people have been telling us there were problems, but I think the critical thing was being able to actually have routine data from hospital trusts.”
Scotland’s NHS did maintain urgent cancer services throughout the first phase of dealing with the pandemic and a framework for cancer surgery has also been published.
Health secretary Jeane Freeman said; “A lot of work is underway to ensure that we can increase the level of cancer treatment now that it is safer to do that, although there are significant measures that need to be introduced too.”
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