Northern Ireland has highest number of cancelled red flag cancer operations in the UK, according to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Latest figures reveal that 4,630 urgent red flag procedures were cancelled between March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and January 2021.
One of those affected is mother of two Donna Parkinson. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 ovarian cancer on Monday 23rd March – the day Northern Ireland entered its coronavirus lockdown.
Despite having urgent surgery scheduled for the following week, Donna, a first aid trainer, got the devastating news that the procedure had been cancelled.
“There was no future date. It was a case of it could be weeks, it could be months, it could be six months down the line. We just don’t know.”
“I just thought, this cancer is inside me. Is it spreading? Has it metastasized? When they do get around to doing this operation, are things going to be a lot worse? And ultimately thinking, am I going to die because I’m not having this surgery?”
Eventually, Donna had to wait until seven weeks after diagnosis to receive her operation.
Brendan Lee is another patient with cancer whose treatments have been delayed because of the impact of the pandemic.
Just four weeks ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. However, despite being in need of radiotherapy, he is not set to receive the treatment until next month.
“It’s scary. During the day, it’s not so bad. It’s during the night. You waken up, during the hours of darkness and there’s just you and your thoughts,” Brendan told UTV.
“But I just keep going ahead and keep looking forward – keep moving ahead to bring me closer to the treatment,” he said.
For Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland’s Director of the Royal College of Surgeons, the stories of cancer patients such as Donna and Brendan show why the Department of Health needs to take action.
“We need as a matter of urgency to look at ways of sustaining time dependent surgery while at the same time, resting our staff who are in the thick of battle from March,” Mr Taylor told UTV.
“And finally, continuing to manage the outbreak that is Covid.”
Mr Taylor is urging health chiefs to designate a hospital here as a ‘Covid Free Centre’ to try and clear the backlog and help save lives.
These centres already exist in England and could act as a hub for cancer patients to be treated whilst other facilities continue to treat those with Coronavirus.
For Donna, a change in the policy in essential.
“I think moving forward from here, from this point, it’s got to be done,” she said.
“People can’t sit at home with cancer not knowing when they’re going to receive their treatment.”
It’s scary. It’s really really scary that you might not pull through. You might not make it. Fortunately I did.
Responding to these calls, the Health Minister Robin Swann said he was very concerned about cancelled red flag appointments, saying that he fully recognises the distress and anxiety any delays to red flag referrals can cause patients and their families.
“However, we need to understand that the HSC continues to respond to unprecedented demand for unscheduled treatment,” Mr Swann said.
“Our ICUs are still well above their normal capacity and there is a large number of very sick patients on hospital wards.
“Clinicians and managers are doing everything they can to maintain as much elective capacity as possible and are only postponing these appointments if there is absolutely no alternative.
“I have moved all trusts to a regional position to ensure that urgent and time critical cases from across Northern Ireland can access the available capacity – including in the independent sector where appropriate. “Many of these appointments have now been rescheduled. This is being kept under daily review and any postponed operations will be rescheduled as quickly as possible.
The existing Day Procedure Unit at Lagan Valley Hospital is operating as a covid-light site and has been successfully delivering a range of day procedures, including red-flag diagnostic procedures, and much needed support to the region in response to the downturn in elective services.
“I have asked all HSC Trusts to put forward plans for covid-light sites where elective services can be provided as part of the rebuilding process when the numbers in hospital start to come down,” Mr Swann added. “More complex surgery still needs to take place on major acute sites. HSC Trusts have already put in place covid-light pathways on these sites and we will continue to develop these to ensure that more patients can be safely treated and cared for.”
WATCH: Video report from Jane Loughrey
— to www.itv.com