Breast cancer treatment delays caused by the coronavirus response have led to increased depression and anxiety among patients, which experts fear could harm their survival.

A new study by Birkbeck, University of London, has found that nearly one in three women diagnosed with primary breast cancer had treatment, appointments or scans postponed as a result of the pandemic response.

Those women reported poorer mental health than women who were able to continue treatment, scoring around 20 per cent higher for depression and anxiety on questionnaires.

Experts are concerned not only because delays to therapy can harm survival, but because previous studies have shown that poor mental health can also increase cancer mortality.

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan, founder of Birkbeck’s Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer who supervised the research, said: “This study is the first to find evidence on the effects on patients’ mental health of the disruption to cancer services caused by the response to Covid-19.

“Women with breast cancer are known to be at a heightened risk of developing mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, loss of confidence, worry and fear about their conditions, so it is perhaps not surprising that these feelings can intensify if their treatment is affected.

“This can have longer lasting effects on their recovery, so we would like to see urgent action to put in place immediately to protect them and ensure that they have the best possible outcomes.”

Many cancer patients have suffered treatment delays because NHS resources were redirected to fight coronavirus. Some cancer therapies also damage the immune system so were considered too risky to continue at the height of the pandemic.

But researchers are concerned about the long-term implications and are calling for better access to online cognitive therapies to help mental health. 

Dr Jessica Swainston of Birkbeck, who led the research, said: “This study provides us with some important lessons for future pandemics. 

“It is really important that preparedness plans prioritise the development and implementation of accessible health solutions, psychological treatments or ‘interventions’ that can be delivered in accessible ways such as online, for vulnerable populations.”

The research is based on a series of online surveys with 234 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, which assessed their mental health and wellbeing after lockdown and after receiving their screening letter. 

Bethany Chapman who also led the study added: “The Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown in the UK has not only had debilitating effects on diagnosis and treatment for women affected by breast cancer, but has further added to the psychological distress so often experienced by these women.”

The research is published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology – Psycho-Oncology.

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