A charity has expressed “tremendous concern” about the number of young people diagnosed during the first wave.
A new study found a “significant reduction in cancer detection in children, teenagers and young adults” in England during the first few months of the crisis.
Researchers from the University of Oxford set out to investigate how the pandemic had affected children with cancer.
They examined incidence rates, time to diagnosis, and cancer-related intensive care admissions for children and young people up to age 25 during the first wave of the pandemic.
They collected data from February 1, 2020 to August 15, and compared it to the same time frame in the three years before Covid hit.
In this six and a half month period in 2020, a total of 380 cancers were diagnosed in children and young people.
More than 2,600 cases were diagnosed during the same period in the past three years.
The study, presented as an abstract to the NCRI festival, concluded that the number of cancers diagnosed last year fell by 17% compared to the previous three years.
The finding was especially true for tumors of the central nervous system – where there was a 38% reduction in new cases – and lymphomas, where there was a 28% decrease.
Children diagnosed during the pandemic were significantly more likely to receive intensive care support (ICU) prior to their diagnosis — suggesting they were sicker by the time they were diagnosed.
The authors found that the mean time between diagnosis and initiation of treatment was slightly shorter during the first wave compared to the pre-pandemic period.
The authors concluded: “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a substantial reduction in cancer detection in children, teens and young adults during the first wave, with an increase in cancer-related ICU admissions, indicating a more severe onset of the disease. disease at diagnosis.”
One of the authors, Dr. Defne Saatci, said: “Recognizing cancer early and starting treatment quickly gives children and young people the best chance of survival.
“We already know that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to worrying delays in the diagnosis and treatment of many adults with cancer, so we wanted to understand how the pandemic affected cancer services for children.”
Lead researcher Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox said: “We found that during the pandemic, more children were admitted to intensive care before being diagnosed with cancer.
“One possible explanation is that these children waited longer to see a doctor and therefore may have been more unwell at the time of their diagnosis.
“Along with the lower rate of cancer diagnoses in the first wave, this study suggests that Covid-19 may have had a serious impact on early diagnosis in this group of patients.
“As we recover from the pandemic, it is vital that we get childhood cancer diagnoses back on track as soon as possible.”
Kate Collins, chief executive of the Teenage Cancer Trust, said: “Until now, there has been limited evidence on the impact of the pandemic on childhood cancer diagnosis.
“Too often, young people with cancer are forgotten or overlooked, especially when collecting data, making them invisible in the system.
“Even before the pandemic, we knew that the route from young people to diagnosis could be long and complicated. Early diagnosis can save lives.
“The fact that the pandemic has delayed diagnosis is a huge concern and it is essential to understand not only the reasons why the pandemic affected diagnosis, but also the impact it has on children and young people with cancer, and what they now need from the health services that care for them.”
It comes as the NHS faces the worst healthcare backlog in its history.
In England alone, millions of people are waiting for hospital treatment.
Meanwhile, a damning report published in September concluded it could take more than a decade to clear the cancer backlog in England.
Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank and health consultancy CF found that during the peak of the pandemic, 369,000 fewer people than expected were referred to a specialist with suspected cancer.
Cancer Research UK warned that cancer survival rates could “deteriorate” because of the backlog of care.
An NHS spokesperson said: “These partial data do not fully reflect the extent to which NHS staff maintained cancer services for children during the pandemic, with overall referral and treatment numbers, including for children, returning to usual levels.
“The NHS remains open and ready to take care of you, so it is vital that people experiencing cancer symptoms come forward and are monitored.”