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New data on the impact of COVID-19 on head and neck cancers

6th January 2021

DATA-CAN has collaborated with the Swallows Head and Neck Cancer Charity to assess the impact of the pandemic on these cancers.

DATA-CAN has collaborated with the Swallows Head and Neck Cancer Charity to assess the impact of the pandemic on these cancers.

New data, from DATA-CAN, and partners, on behalf of Swallows has shown that progress in projected five-year survival from head and neck cancer could be set back significantly and have a devastating impact on patients. It could potentially lead to hundreds of deaths as a direct and indirect result of COVID-19. 

Over the course of the UK lockdown between March and May 2020, DATA-CAN and the UCL Institute for Health Informatics collected and analysed ‘real-time’ data from UK cancer centres. These data provided a valuable insight into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on all cancer patients and cancer services. The research found:

Researchers from DATA-CAN, and partners, have now looked in detail at the impact on head and neck cancers and found that, at its worst, there was a drop of nearly 60 per cent in urgent referrals for a suspicion of head and neck cancer during the first lockdown. This meant that six out 10 people who had symptoms potentially indicating head and neck cancer were not being referred to a specialist to investigate further.

Estimates suggest that this could have a devastating impact on five-year survival for people with head and neck cancer. Pre-COVID, around 47 per cent of people with head and neck cancer would be projected to survive for five years or more. This figure could now drop to 43 per cent which could potentially lead to an additional 451 deaths in people with head and neck cancer as a result of the pandemic.

Professor Mark Lawler, DATA CAN’s scientific lead and Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s University Belfast, said,

“Our research shows that there have been significant diagnostic and treatment delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic for people with all cancers and the data we show today for head and neck cancer is particularly worrying. Whilst we have seen some positive recovery in urgent referrals and chemotherapy appointments, it may be that just getting back to pre-COVID-19 levels will not be enough. We may need to be operating at 130 per cent of pre COVID-19 levels to address the backlog, the missing diagnoses, and the delayed treatments for people with cancer.

“We’ve done so well to improve cancer outcomes in the UK in the last decade. Let us make sure that 10 years progress isn’t wiped out in 10 months.”

Watch this animation from the Swallows Head and Neck Cancer Charity to find out more.

Data referred to in this work were contributed by: