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Nearly 5,000 cancers in Yorkshire went undiagnosed during first year of pandemic

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Nikki Brady


Yorkshire Cancer Research is calling for more investment in early diagnosis following new figures that reveal nearly 5,000 cancers went undiagnosed during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The charity’s analysis of data published by the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS) shows the number of cancers diagnosed in the region dropped by 13.6% in 2020 – the lowest number recorded since 2010¹.

The delay in finding these cancers is expected to result in an increase in deaths from cancer over the coming years because people are likely to be diagnosed at a later stage when treatment options are more limited².

Dr Stuart Griffiths, Director of Research, Services and Policy at Yorkshire Cancer Research said:

For the first time, the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on cancer has been revealed in the publication of these official figures.

Director of Research, Services and Policy at Yorkshire Cancer Research

“The decrease in cancers diagnosed is a clear and worrying reflection of the difficulties people experienced in seeing their GPs with symptoms of cancer during the first year of the pandemic, as well as the postponement or scaling back of cancer screening services.”

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A total of 26,972 people were diagnosed with cancer in Yorkshire during 2020, compared to 31,227 in 2019. The cancer incidence rate – the number of cancers diagnosed per 100,000 people – decreased by 14.6% in Yorkshire, from 627 cases per 100,000 people to 536 cases per 100,000 people¹.

A greater decrease was seen in the rate of cases diagnosed in Yorkshire compared to England as a whole, where the rate decreased by 13.3% from 614 cases per 100,000 people to 532 cases per 100,000 people¹.

Following the first lockdown, changes in health-seeking behaviour were observed, with urgent two-week-wait cancer referrals decreasing by up to 80% in response to physical distancing and concerns about contracting Covid-19².

In addition, cancer screening was suspended, routine diagnostic work deferred, and only urgent symptomatic cases prioritised for diagnostic intervention².

The most significant drops in cases were seen in breast and prostate cancer¹ as a result of the breast screening programme being paused and a reduction in the number of men going to their GP with symptoms and having a blood test called the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test.

Yorkshire Cancer Research is urging people to take part in screening for bowel, breast, cervical and lung cancer if invited and to contact their GP practice if they are worried about possible symptoms of any type of cancer.

The charity is funding clinical trials and services to help improve early diagnosis, including the Leeds Lung Health Check, which is finding lung cancer early by screening people at high risk. As part of another study funded by the charity, thousands of people across Yorkshire are being sent urine self-testing kits so they can be checked for signs of bladder cancer. Another trial will see thousands of women offered at-home tests that can detect the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

But Yorkshire Cancer Research is also calling for more to be done by the government to speed up early diagnosis and ensure people receive the treatment they need.

Dr Griffiths continued:

“Diagnosing cancer early was a problem long before the pandemic, particularly in Yorkshire where a greater proportion of people are diagnosed at a late stage compared to the national average.

Although much work has been done to try to clear the backlog, there are further steps that need to be taken to find these missing cancers. These include more funding for the cancer workforce, so we have sustainable healthcare provision now and in the future.

Director of Research, Services and Policy at Yorkshire Cancer Research

“We’re also urging the government to quicken the pace for rollout of diagnostic centres that will enable more people to access cancer tests in convenient community locations. And we want to see the publication of a thorough and fully-funded 10-year cancer plan, that when implemented will support people to receive an early cancer diagnosis, offer them the most innovative treatments and ultimately save lives.”


1 CancerData

2 The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK: a national, population-based, modelling study - PMC (

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