Disruption to cancer diagnoses continued in 2021

Due to impact of Covid-19 pandemic

Deborah Condon

June 7, 2023

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  • The disruption to cancer diagnoses brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic continued in 2021, a new report by the National Cancer Registry Ireland (NCRI) has shown.

    According to the report, preliminary data shows that the number of cancer cases diagnosed in 2021 was down by 1,664 cases, which is 6% lower than projected.

    These findings are based on registered and projected cancer cases in 2021 using data available in March 2023. They show that overall, the combined number of diagnosed cancers during 2020 and 2021 was down by 4,320 cases, which is 8% lower than projected.

    Liver, pancreatic and kidney cancers appear to have been most significantly impacted by disruptions that occurred during the pandemic. For both sexes combined, the largest shortfalls were seen for cancers of the liver (36% fewer cases than projected), pancreas (26% fewer) and kidney (20% fewer).

    In females, the largest shortfall was seen in pancreatic cancer (30% fewer), while in males, the largest shortfall was seen in liver cancer (39% fewer).

    However, the data did show that numbers of certain cancers which were severely impacted by the Covid pandemic in 2020 (e.g. female breast cancer which had a shortfall of 23% and colorectal cancer which had a shortfall of 18% in 2020) returned to expected case numbers in 2021.

    According to NCRI director, Prof Deirdre Murray, while cancer survival rates are continuing to improve, the incidence of most cancers increases with age. She pointed out that people aged 65 years and older formed the largest cohort of Covid-19 deaths in Ireland, “so it is possible that some may have died before being diagnosed and treated for cancer”.

    Meanwhile, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) has said it is “dismayed that our fears of there being a second year of fewer cancers being diagnosed have been confirmed”.

    “Cancer never went away during the pandemic but remained undetected due to a range of reasons including putting off seeking medical advice, disruption to health services and possibly death from Covid.

    “Until we see data that shows the number of cancers diagnosed has returned to expected levels, the ICS will continue to call for urgent and accelerated measures from government that get people diagnosed in the first instance and secondly, that ensure swift access to cancer treatment,” commented Rachel Morrogh, the ICS’s director of advocacy and external affairs.

    Further collaborative work is ongoing to assess the impact of Covid-related disruptions on cancer services and outcomes in Ireland and the NCRI expects to publish a more definitive update on 2021 case numbers later this year.

    The NCRI report can be viewed here.

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