For billions of us across the world, the past six months have put our health into sharper focus than ever before. We restricted our lives to the point they were unrecognisable as we united in our fight against a global pandemic. We have become so well-versed and vigilant around the symptoms of COVID-19 that no mild headache, sudden cough or unexpected wave of lethargy can go unnoticed.
Keeping tabs on unusual signs and symptoms is not only understandable – it is crucial. But why are we not applying this level of awareness to other areas of our health, which are equally as important?
Recent research published in The Lancet Oncology shows there has been a drop-off in the number of cancer patients seeing their GP with symptoms, and lower referrals for scans, which could result in later diagnoses.1 Survey data from charity organisation Blood Cancer UK similarly reported that over 70% of blood cancer specialists have been seeing fewer new patients, compared to before the pandemic began.2
But even in the midst of an outbreak, other deadly diseases still exist, and for blood cancers in particular, late diagnosis represents a grave problem.
Despite being the 3rd biggest cancer killer3, and the 5th most common cancer in the UK,4 with one person diagnosed every 20 minutes (pre-COVID),4 blood cancer has long presented challenges around late diagnosis. Around a quarter of blood cancer patients reported that they needed to see their GP three times or more before receiving a diagnosis.2
Receiving an early diagnosis can be vitally important for people with blood cancer. In certain types of blood cancer, such as multiple myeloma, the impact of the disease can be significant, both physically and emotionally. Patients may have to try many different therapies as treatments can stop being effective, and with each line of therapy, the cancer becomes harder to treat and the patient becomes more and more unwell.7 An early diagnosis, paired with access to new and clinically effective treatments, helps ensure that people receive the right treatment at the right time – thereby improving prognosis and outcomes.5,7
That is why this September may be the most important Blood Cancer Awareness Month of our time. Now we must work harder to help rebut late diagnosis by educating ourselves on the signs and symptoms of blood cancer, and seeking appropriate medical attention if we experience any unusual symptoms.
The symptoms of blood cancer can be hard to spot as they can be vague and non-specific. Common symptoms can include, but are not limited to:6,7
- Weight loss
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding
- Lumps or swellings
- Drenching night sweats
- Persistent, recurrent or severe infections
- Fever (38°C or above)
- Unexplained rash or itchy skin
- Bone, joint or abdominal pain
- Tiredness that doesn't improve with rest or sleep
- Unusually pale complexion (pallor)
Not everyone will have the same symptoms, and people may have symptoms that are not listed here.