Half of people with cancer symptoms did not seek help during the first wave of COVID-19

Thursday 25 February 2021

The RCR has urged patients to take up screening appointments and seek GP help for cancer symptoms, with oncology teams reporting more cases of less treatable cancer.

The calls come as new research from Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK released today (February 25), reveal nearly half of people who experienced possible cancer symptoms in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic did not contact their GP.

Researchers polled more than 7,500 people about their health experiences between March-August 2020, with 40% of respondents reporting at least one potential symptom of cancer.

Of those, nearly half (45%) admitted to not contacting their GP about symptoms, with reasons cited including nervousness around COVID-19 safety and not wanting to put additional strain on the NHS.

The knock-on impact of fewer patients being referred last year continues to been seen by cancer teams, who are anecdotally reporting more late-stage cancer cases.

Responding to the poll, RCR President Dr Jeanette Dickson said:

“It is distressing that between March-August nearly half of patients in the UK with worrying symptoms did not contact their GP, and these experiences reflect the plummet in cancer referrals we saw over the period1.

“Throughout the summer and autumn oncologists saw the direct knock-on of these drops, with fewer patients being diagnosed with cancer2.

“While referral numbers appear to be getting back to pre-pandemic levels1 front line cancer teams are telling us that they are still not seeing the total numbers they would expect, with more patients presenting with later stage, often less curable cancers.

“We understand patients may still have concerns about burdening hospitals and the potential risk of catching COVID-19. However, services working to diagnose cancer and the oncology teams who treat it have implemented robust precautionary measures and are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of coronavirus and keep patients safe. 

“We urge all patients, if you are offered a screening opportunity, take it. If you spot any worrying symptoms please contact your GP without delay, they are open for business. If it is cancer, the sooner we diagnose it, the more likely we can cure it.”


  1. In England alone, urgent cancer referrals dropped by 28% between March-August 2020 compared to the same period the previous year, a drop of more than 340,000 patients. See Cancer Waiting Times – National Times Series Oct 2009 – Dec 2020
  2. The National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service shows there were 33,244 fewer cancer diagnoses made in England between March-September 2020 (most recent data available) compared to the same period in 2019, a drop of 20%. See January 2018-September 2020 rapid registrations

← Go to press centre