health

Patients in limbo after cancelled cancer surgery as Covid delays NHS care


Patients have told of their pain and fear after having potentially life-saving surgery cancelled repeatedly since the start of the pandemic because of Covid’s devastating impact on normal NHS care.

People who were due to have an operation for cancer or a hip and knee replacement have been the worst affected by long delays, stories shared by Guardian readers show. But the suspension of NHS treatment has also hit those awaiting a hysterectomy or gall bladder removal.

Patients have described suffering in excruciating pain, worrying about their health and being left in limbo as their procedure has been cancelled, with doctors unable to give them a new date.

A 40-year-old man in London was diagnosed with stage-4 bowel cancer, which had already spread to his liver, last June. After months of chemotherapy he was due to have surgery in King’s College hospital in London on 28 December, but it was called off.

“The surgery was rebooked for 5 January but was again cancelled the day before. My oncologist told me that all [non-emergency] surgery is now cancelled indefinitely,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Without this surgery my cancer may grow, spread or become untreatable, in which case I will be dead within the next few years.”

A 53-year-old Greater Manchester man’s double hip replacement last spring was postponed indefinitely as part of the widespread shutdown of care initiated to help NHS hospitals cope with coronavirus. “I had to cease working at the end of May because the physical nature of my job became too much for my hips. I am not eligible for benefits because of my partner’s earnings.

“My physical condition has deteriorated rapidly to the point where I am finding the pain excruciating, despite the cocktail of painkillers I am taking,” he said. “The NHS emailed me on 1 December to say they couldn’t give a timeline for my op due to Covid.”

Similarly, a mental health trainer in Norfolk was due to have an arthritic hip replaced on 21 April last year, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, but the operation was cancelled. Since then she has suffered a “huge deterioration. I’ve been unable to walk anywhere due to excruciating pain”.

“In October my consultant told me I was top of his list, and in November and December that if he was allowed a list I’d be on it. None of that happened. I’m not laying blame at the feet of my consultant as he feels very strongly that operations such as mine should not have been stopped,” she said.

During the autumn the NHS cleared some of the backlog of surgery that built up when operations were cancelled in the spring. But a second backlog has been created in recent months as many hospitals have again had to call off everything except emergency procedures as operating theatres have been turned into intensive care beds and surgical staff have been redeployed.

The Patients Association said that a future public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic would have to look at why so many people were unable to get treatment for serious non-Covid illness.

Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Many patients have been put through a difficult time by the disruption to NHS care during the pandemic, and some have faced extremely grave consequences in terms of ongoing pain, operations that proved less effective than they would have done if performed earlier, or even missing opportunities for life-saving treatment.

“We will want a future public inquiry to identify the extent to which this has happened. For those patients and those close to them, it will often have been an immensely distressing experience.”

A 65-year-old man on the Isle of Wight, who asked to remain anonymous, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, in April. Part of it was removed for analysis but nine months later he is still waiting for the rest of it to be taken off. “The consultant at St Mary’s hospital told me in May they’d get me in and not to worry and that it would all be taken care of.

“In July the maxillofacial department told me they’d not forgotten about me and that I’d get an appointment in due course as they worked through a backlog of cases, hopefully before Christmas. I didn’t get a date and have just been left waiting and wondering when I might receive the surgery to remove a very itchy and often sore remnant of my carcinoma.”

David Wright, an 80-year-old retired journalist in London, urgently needs to have surgery to repair a leaking heart valve that means he is always short of breath and gets dizzy just from standing up.

“It’s now been left untreated for 18 months, which is really worrying,” he said. “At the start of December I was told I should be going in for the surgery in the next two months and I was told to expect a letter at the start of January, but nothing arrived.

“When I rang the scheduling department they said they had to cancel all non-Covid surgery and were unable to give me any idea how soon I might be able to go in, which was very alarming to hear. After 18 months without treatment my condition has deteriorated.

“I’ve always been a big supporter of the NHS and I know this isn’t their fault but it is worrying. It’s really frustrating that government policy is to focus solely in Covid and not keep some hospitals to treat other conditions.”

Power said NHS England’s decision to wait until the second wave of coronavirus forced hospitals to cancel surgery, rather than doing it pre-emptively as they did in the first wave, had helped some patients to get care recently.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “The pandemic has clearly turned lives upside down and has interrupted many NHS services, as staff have cared for more than 300,000 patients with Covid in the past year.

“Despite the recent number of Covid patients being nearly double April’s peak, average waits for routine surgery fell three months in a row at the end of last year, and over winter staff were caring for three non-Covid patients for every one person with the virus, while latest data show the NHS delivered twice as many elective operations and three times as many vital diagnostic checks for diseases like cancer compared with April.”



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