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Bowel cancer patients going undiagnosed due to COVID distruption

A new study led by the University of Oxford has found that since the first coronavirus lockdown the number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer in England has fallen sharply, with a deficit persisting up to October 2020.

Between April and October 2020, over 3,500 fewer patients than expected were diagnosed with bowel cancer in England. Since bowel cancer is more likely to be curable if it is detected at an early stage, these results suggest that many patients, whose diagnosis has yet to be made, may die unnecessarily. The results are published today in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

The research was carried out by a team of clinicians and academic researchers from across the UK, including from the University of Leeds and the University of Newcastle.

For this study, the researchers assessed the patterns of referral for bowel cancer investigation, diagnosis and treatment within the English NHS from 1 January 2019 to 31 October 2020.

The results showed that, compared with an average month in 2019, during April 2020 at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus:

  • the monthly number of referrals by GPs to hospital clinics for investigation of possible bowel cancer reduced by 63% (from 36,274 to 13,440);
  • the number of colonoscopies performed fell by 92% (from 46,441 to 3,484); and
  • the monthly number of people with confirmed bowel cancer referred for treatment fell by 22% (from 2,781 to 2,158), and the number of operations performed fell by 31% from (2,003 to 1,378).

This is the first study to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis and management of bowel cancer across England.

Full story available on the Nuffield Department of Population Health website.

Oxfordshire-based SCAN pathway wins BMJ award

Every year, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) runs a competition to find the cancer care team that has developed new approaches to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. This year, six teams were shortlisted from across the UK and on the 7th October it was announced that the Oxfordshire-based SCAN pathway had won this year’s award.

The Suspected CANcer (SCAN) pathway is designed to accelerate cancer diagnosis in patients with non-specific cancer symptoms. The UK performs worse than many other developed nations in terms of cancer survival and this is in part due to the fact that 21% of cancers are diagnosed after emergency presentation, when they are often at a later stage and more difficult to treat successfully.

In an effort to improve these statistics, urgent referral pathways for suspected cancer have been developed for symptoms specific to one cancer site. However, one in five people diagnosed with cancer only ever report non-specific symptoms of cancer, such as unexplained weight loss, fatigue, nausea, or abdominal pain. These people often experience delays due to being referred sequentially to multiple different tumour site-specific clinics before receiving a diagnosis. The SCAN team identified this unmet need and designed and implemented a new diagnostic pathway that straddles primary and secondary care for patients with non-specific but concerning cancer symptoms.

Patients are referred by their GP to the pathway based in the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, where they are investigated with a whole body computed tomography (CT) scan and undergo blood and stool testing. The outcome of these tests directs the patient to the most appropriate clinical expertise to reach a diagnosis as quickly as possible.

Since its implementation across Oxfordshire in November 2017, the SCAN pathway has seen 2148 patients and diagnosed 201 incidences of cancer, most commonly lung, bowel, pancreas, lymphoma and breast. In addition to cancer diagnoses, the SCAN pathway has diagnosed a large number of serious non-cancer conditions, including tuberculosis, endocrine diseases and inflammatory bowel disease.

“One of the unique features of the SCAN Pathway is that for the remaining patients who do not receive a cancer diagnosis, we offer GPs the option for these patients to have a general medical review in a further attempt to reduce onward referrals.”

  • Julie-Ann Moreland, Macmillan Project Manager and SCAN Navigator, Oxford Radiology Research Unit

Since the SCAN pathway’s inception, the number of GP surgery visits and secondary care referrals prior to receiving a cancer diagnosis decreased by approximately 4-fold, saving a large number of NHS appointments, and the time to diagnosis has reduced. Patients have also responded positively about the service in patient satisfaction questionnaires.

“Prior to the SCAN pathway, patients with non-specific symptoms were having to go to the GP on average 7.8 times and be referred to numerous secondary care clinics before receiving a diagnosis. The SCAN pathway decreases the time to diagnosis and allows patients to start receiving important treatments earlier. This will not only improve patient outcomes but will also reduce the anxiety experienced by patients while waiting for a diagnosis”

 

 “I am delighted that the SCAN team have received this recognition from the BMJ. The judges made a special mention of the holistic care that the clinical team works so hard to provide. Given its success, we are introducing the pathway across the Thames Valley Cancer Alliance and other regions. We are gathering data as we go so we can learn how to improve the service for patients.”

  • Dr Brian Nicholson, Academic GP Lead, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences

 

“The development and implementation of the SCAN Pathway has been the result of hard work and collaborative teamwork with passionate people who have strived to develop a service focusing on improving the experience for patients.

“To even be short listed for this award is an incredible achievement and so to win it has been a fantastic and unexpected surprise. We are all very proud of this new pathway and this is a brilliant way to receive recognition and celebrate that.”

  • Zoe Kaveney, Cancer Programme Manager at Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group

 

The SCAN pathway was supported by the Accelerate, Coordinate, Evaluate (ACE) programme funded by NHS England, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan, and the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group.

How chemotherapy impacts the body

Current standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can have lasting effects on the body. Chemotherapy for example is associated with many side effects, such as nausea and anaemia, due to the impact of the toxins on healthy tissue as well as the tumour.

Neoadjuvant therapy, whereby therapies are administered before the main treatment, to help reduce the size of a tumor or kill cancer cells that have spread, has previously been suggested to contribute to changes in the composition of a patient’s body. This includes reduction in muscle mass (or ‘sarcopenia’) which is a natural result of aging, but in those with cancer it can lead to some post-operative complications and other diseases further down the line.

A new study from Mr Nick Maynard, Oxford University Hospitals Trust, has assessed the changes in muscle mass in gastro-oesophageal cancer patients, to better understand the long-lasting impact therapies have on the body and if it can be used to predict the risk of post-op complications. From a sample of 199 patients, they observed a decrease in skeletal mass in all individuals, with 91 participants losing more than 5% of their original skeletal mass. Those with a high rate of muscle mass depletion were generally male and significantly older, i.e. over the age of 67 years old.

50% of patients in the study experienced post-operative complications, such as pneumonia, with 13% having severe complications. However, Nick and the team observed that this was not related to the patient’s loss of skeletal mass.

Fortunately, this means that patients undergoing surgery for oesophageal cancer with large reductions in muscle mass are not necessarily at an increased risk of post-operative complications. Whilst these results do not produce any new method for predicting post-op complications, as sarcopenia did not determine the frequency of post-op complications in the sampled patients, they provide a deeper understanding of how neoadjuvant therapies can impact the body. This is important as post-operative loss of muscle mass has been previously associated with a lower survival rate for oesophageal cancer patients, so this will help to inform clinicians which patients may need to be more closely monitored.

Power of the patient voice

Clinical trial research from Prof Sarah Blagden, Department of Oncology, was recently published in Lancet Oncology. This work was conducted as part of the larger ICON8 ovarian cancer study and found that ovarian cancer patients placed on a more-frequent chemotherapy treatment plan have the same survival rates but poorer quality of life than those receiving the standard, less-frequent treatment.

Chemotherapy can cause significant side effects which can impact on the day-to-day functioning of patients. Some of these are not necessarily definable symptoms but manifest in changes to their Quality of Life (QOL) – such as the ability to work or take part in family life.

QOL is of particular importance to cancer patients, especially those with advanced or terminal cancers. Investigators are increasingly encouraged to include measures of QOL, via specific questionnaires, into their clinical studies but it is often measured poorly (using the wrong questions or too infrequently).

ICON8 was a phase III clinical trial that randomised 1,540 patients with advanced epithelial ovarian cancer to three different chemotherapy regimens. Those in one arm received chemotherapy once every three weeks (the current standard treatment), whilst patients in the other two arms received chemotherapy weekly.

Although the study showed patients in the thee arms had the same survival outcome, suggesting the weekly or 3-weekly treatments were equivocal, the QOL analysis gave a very different picture. It showed that patients who on the weekly treatments had more fatigue and longer-lasting nerve damage.  Sarah’s research concluded that the 3 weekly (standard) treatment was more tolerable for ovarian cancer patients and the different treatments were not equivocal after all.

Sarah Blagden, Associate Professor says;

To me, this study highlights how important it is to include the patients’ experience as a readout in clinical trials. The patients and study centres were fantastic at ensuring the QOL questionnaires were filled in and collected, and the data were carefully analysed by the MRC Trials team at UCL. The results completely changed our interpretation of the data. Not only that, but we can now confidently tell patients starting this treatment in the future what their experience is likely to be.

Whilst survival rates are often prioritised over QOL when interpreting study results, QOL is an important factor to consider when weighing up the benefits of one treatment over another. Patients and their wellbeing need to be at the forefront of this decision-making process.

To read more about this paper see here.

This research was funded by Cancer Research UK, Medical Research Council, Health Research Board Ireland, Irish Cancer Society and Cancer Australia.