A recent request for information made under freedom of information laws has revealed that hundreds of urgent cancer operations were cancelled by NHS trusts in England during the ‘NHS winter chaos’.
At the beginning of this year, in an unprecedented move, NHS England told hospitals to cancel all non-urgent operations to free up beds. However, the guidance issued insisted that "cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead".
An estimated 22,000 operations were cancelled, but through a freedom of information application, Health Service Journal has discovered that more than half of the 81 NHS trusts polled were forced to cancel at least one urgent cancer operation between January and February 2018. The total number of cancelled cancer operations reached 530, seemingly in direct contravention of NHS England guidance.
Health chiefs have apologised for the "entirely unacceptable" cancellations, but campaigners do not accept those apologies, stating that such delays may have cut patients’ chances of survival.
Fran Woodard, executive director of policy and impact at Macmillan Cancer Support, said that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to cancel time critical cancer operations, claiming that “a delay could mean that the cancer not only progresses but that the chances of survival are affected”.
Ian Eardley, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, agreed that the cancellations were unacceptable, noting that “any delay in an operation can be extremely distressing for patients and their families”.
Arran Macleod, an associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, said: “It is unclear exactly what type of operations were cancelled, although some of them are reported to be diagnostic biopsies used to decide on treatment. Whilst it may be argued that these procedures are less time critical and perhaps less important, we consider the opposite to be true. Diagnostic procedures are vital in determining the stage and grade of a cancer in order to decide what type of treatment is required. If, for example, a patient has a fast growing tumour, timely diagnosis via diagnostic procedures is absolutely necessary to determine the treatment plan and achieve the best possible outcome for the patient.
“We act for many patients who have suffered as a result of delays in their cancer diagnosis. In a number of instances the delay has caused a curable cancer to grow and develop into one that cannot be cured, which often has devastating effects on the patients and their families. We are therefore surprised to read that hospital trusts in England permitted the cancellation of so many time critical cancer treatments.
“If you or a family member have any concerns about treatment you have received, we would be happy to speak with you to discuss your options.”