The head of our Scientific Advisory Board, Professor Cliona Kirwan, was the co-author of this recent UK wide research. The study showed that patients with early stage breast cancer underwent care that was no less safe or effective than before the coronavirus pandemic started.
The study involved 3,776 patients at over 64 hospitals between March and May 2020. It found that the majority of patients received treatment in line with normal practice, on time and to standard, in pre-operative, operative and post-operative settings. It should be noted that within the study there was only 14 cases of patients testing positive for COVID-19, which is 1% of the total – and none of the patients involved died from the virus.
The team responsible for the study say that the success can be partially explained by the adoption of multidisciplinary UK guidelines, which were published early in the pandemic, advising on the safe management of patients. Furthermore, there was swift adoption of the findings from a 10-year-study – known as Fast Forward.
Fast Forward recommended shortening radiotherapy treatment from 15 doses over 3 weeks to 5 doses in a week, having showed that 5 doses was as effective as 15 doses in terms of cancer recurrence. Although the reduced number of doses are given at a higher intensity, side effects are no different.
Some patients did miss out on breast reconstruction surgery which is expected to have repercussions on breast services in the future – for instance, more reconstructions may need to be offered at a later date. In terms of current surgical options, implant reconstruction is now being offered at certain hospitals, including The Nightingale Centre. Some centres are still working towards this, but the situation is thought to be rapidly improving.
The pandemic has also affected breast cancer services in other ways. In particular, it has affected screening, with reduced numbers of women attending their appointments. However, screening services are now fully open, and women can be reassured that safe, COVID-protective measures are in place.
Professor Cliona Kirwan comments that:
‘Compromises to cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to impact on survival, as well as quality of life, service provision, and health economics. But this study definitively shows that for patients with breast cancer who are in the system, the NHS is able to deliver effective, timely and safe care. Outcomes are as good as they were before the pandemic took hold, and that’s a result of the fantastic work of everyone in multi-disciplinary teams across the UK. The message we want to get across is that it is perfectly safe to come to hospital if you have discovered a lump in your breast and want it checked out’.
To read more about Fast Forward’s work on shortening radiotherapy treatment, click here.