Nurse shortage ‘delaying treatment for 21% of UK cancer patients’

One in five living with cancer lack dedicated support due to ‘shocking’ shortfall of specialist care, says Macmillan report

More than 600,000 cancer patients in the UK are facing treatment delays or missing out on vital support because of a shortage of specialist nurses, a report reveals.

One in five of all those living with cancer (21%) are lacking dedicated support. The NHS is suffering from a “shocking” shortfall of 3,000 specialist nurses in England alone, according to the analysis by Macmillan Cancer Support.

As a result, cancer patients are struggling with medication, having hospital appointments cancelled because there are not enough staff or experiencing devastating delays to chemotherapy. In some cases, patients are ending up in A&E.

Patricia Marquis, England director of the Royal College of Nursing, warned the workforce crisis was having a “devastating impact” on people living with cancer. “Expertise built up over many years is lost very quickly and it is patients who pay the price, as this report shows,” she added.

The problem has worsened significantly during the pandemic, experts warn. The number lacking support from a specialist cancer nurse rises to one in four of those diagnosed in the last two years – including at least 75,000 people diagnosed since the start of the pandemic.

“Coronavirus is continuing to deliver a devastating blow to cancer care that was already overstretched before the pandemic,” said Lynda Thomas, Macmillan chief executive. “Good care is a lifeline, not a luxury, and staff shortages mean exhausted nurses are struggling to deliver vital care in worsening conditions.”

The new research reveals almost half (44%) of patients diagnosed with cancer in the last two years who lacked support from a specialist nurse experienced potentially harmful problems as a result.

The charity’s report also found patients who lacked specialist nursing support were much more likely to experience depression or anxiety after their cancer diagnosis.

Specialist cancer nurses help patients understand the disease by offering advice and emotional support, and also help provide treatment. But the analysis found that almost one in three (31%) of cancer patients in the UK felt the nurses looking after them they had unmanageable workloads.

Ruth Godfrey, 56, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019. Because of the pandemic, she lived alone in Norfolk while undergoing treatment. But upon arrival at hospital for chemotherapy, Godfrey found herself waiting “in a dark room for a nurse who didn’t turn up” and “went home feeling upset with my head spinning”.

“I felt as if I was caught in a huge tidal wave, it was utterly terrifying,” she added. “The problem is that nurses are so busy.”

Macmillan is calling on the government to launch a cancer nurse fund of £124m to train an extra 3,371 specialist cancer nurses in England at the upcoming comprehensive spending review. This will help ensure there are sufficient staff to provide all patients with the quality of care they need and deserve, it said.

“We need to see urgent commitments to address the shocking shortfall in cancer nurses,” said Thomas. “If governments fail to rebuild cancer services, all of us will pay the price when we or our families face a cancer diagnosis.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

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Andrew Gregory Health editor

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