30,000 cancer cases undetected in France due to Covid-19

Doctors and a leading association fear the second wave of Covid-19 cases will create new delays in cancer treatment

26 October 2020
A doctor consulting with a patient. There are an estimated 30,000 cancer cases ‘undetected’ France due to the Covid-19 health crisisHospitals have had to redirect resources and patients have been reluctant to see cancer specialists during the health crisis.
By Joanna York

Medical workers and French cancer association La ligue contre le cancer have warned that the second wave of Covid-19 in France must not stop cancer patients getting access to medical care, amid fears that there will be new delays in treatment. 

La ligue contre le cancer estimates “there are around 30,000 undetected cancer cases” in France as a result of the coronavirus upheaval. 

When the health crisis began in spring many patients experienced delayed diagnoses, changing practitioners, and even suspended treatment; as hospitals redirected resources to help fight Covid-19.

A total of 54 departments in France are currently subject to curfew measures to control the spread of the virus, and some intensive care services are approaching capacity. 

Routine cancer tests delayed during first Covid-19 wave

Dr Axel Kahn, president of La ligue contre le cancer told news source FranceInfo: “From the beginning of confinement on March 17, the total number of routine tests for uterus, breast and prostate cancer were totally interrupted until the month of June. 

“During this period, we were expecting to do around 64,000 tests. We have done roughly half.”

As a result, the organisation estimates there are around 30,000 cancer cases that have gone undiagnosed and untreated in France.

Mr Kahn said routine testing returned to normal in the month of July, but he fears the initial shortfall from earlier in the year has not been addressed and risks increasing as the second wave of Covid-19 develops.

He said: “Operations which were not urgent at the time have still not been rescheduled.”

Read more: Getting a breast cancer scan in France FAQs

Cancer treatment also delayed

In the Gastrointestinal Oncology department in the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris, head of the service Dr Julien Taieb said in the past six months he has been forced to postpone treatments “at the slightest alert from the government”.

Some of the delayed treatments have been “relatively urgent”, and will have “heavy consequences”, he said.

 

Patients delaying consultations

Patients are also more hesitant than normal to consults cancer specialists in the current health climate, doctors have said. 

Dr Taieb said: “Often patients delay consultations. Then it takes them three or four months to accept their diagnosis. Since confinement, many people have waited to come for a consultation in September."

These delayed consultations have often revealed serious illness. He said: “We have seen a resurgence of catastrophic cases, with an increase of cancer cells spreading to the brain, which we rarely see in gastrointestinal cancers.”

The doctor said he did not yet know if this was caused by delays in seeking consultations, or because there were an unusually high number of serious cases this summer. 

Dr Taieb encouraged patients to continue to seek diagnoses and get treatment, when possible, during the second wave of Covid-19. He said: “Hospital is not a dangerous place.” 

“It is necessary to continue coming to hospital as cancer needs timely treatment. Losing the chance for optimal treatment [by delaying it] means the chance for recovery is lost.”

Cancer leading killer in France

Cancer is the leading cause of death for men and the second most-common cause of death for women in France. Figures from health body Santé publique France show 157,000 people died of cancer in 2018, and 382,000 cancer diagnoses were made in the same year.

European cancer centre l'institut Gustave Roussy estimates there will be a 2-5% rise in mortality linked to cancer in the next five years, and warns that the risks associated with cancer could rise as new waves of Covid-19 appear.

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