MACMILLAN Cancer Support is warning of the devastating impact coronavirus is having on the physical and mental health of people with cancer as they face the two ‘deadly Cs’ all at once and, is urging those struggling with lockdown to contact Macmillan’s support line service.
New research by the charity reveals for the first time the scale of fear and anxiety hundreds of thousands of people are facing as they deal with both the threat of cancer and COVID-19, with a shocking 270,0000 (9%) people with cancer having experienced panic or anxiety attacks or even suicidal thoughts because of the virus. Macmillan is concerned that the recent government announcement about how shielding will start to be phased out could add to people’s worries if they feel the information is unclear or support is being taken away.
The results show a staggering half a million (570,000) people in the UK with cancer (19%) haven’t left the house at all or have done so less than once a week because they’re scared of catching the virus, or generally scared to leave the house during the lockdown. One in five (20%) of those who have not left the house at all since the start of lockdown – around 90,000 people in the UK – say they won’t feel safe enough to do so until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, irrespective of changes to recent government shielding guidance.
The virus and associated lockdown have left as many as one in four (840,000) people with cancer (28%) feeling stressed, anxious or depressed and one in eight people with cancer (13%) – around 390,000 people in the UK – have seen their mental health worsen due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, one in seven (14%) have experienced a decline in their physical health during the lockdown, including sleep problems (10%), fatigue or extreme tiredness (9%), or pain (5%). Almost half of people with cancer in the UK (49%) have not taken any outdoor exercise at all.
The latest research also suggests the number of people with cancer in the UK who have chosen to take steps to ‘shield’ at home is higher than those deemed ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ to coronavirus. More than 700,000 people (24% of those with cancer) say they had not left the house other than for essential medical appointments during the first two stages of lockdown – almost three times as many as official estimates – and as of 15th June, more than 400,0000 (15%) had still not left the house despite the recent change to government guidance.
At a time when the charity’s income faces a significant drop, Macmillan is doing everything it can to be there for people with cancer during the pandemic, who need it more than ever.
Its Telephone Buddies scheme matches volunteers with cancer patients so they can arrange to have regular chats with someone about what they’re going through, and its free Support Line and Online Community remain valuable sources of virtual support. It has also launched an emergency fundraising appeal, in a bid to ensure it can continue to fund services and provide cancer care and support now and in the future.
Michelle, age 21, from Essex, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma for the second time in April 2020 and is shielding with her family and girlfriend, she said:
“As I was still high risk after treatment, I had to self-isolate just a few days after I got the all-clear in March this year, and never got the chance to properly celebrate remission. Just a month later my cancer returned, which has to be one of the lowest points in my life. Now I can’t leave the house unless it’s to go to the hospital and I’ve lost count of how many months I’ve been indoors. I’ve had to rely more on the kindness of friends and family who have made sure I have the supplies I need to protect my physical well-being, whilst Macmillan have looked out for my mental well-being with services they provide to patients struggling with the isolation, such as therapy.
“The changing shielding guidance just adds to the panic and stress that is already going on for me. The virus isn’t going to evaporate overnight, so I feel it’s just not worth the risk of going outside.”
Deb, age 55, from London, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2019 and is a single mother, shielding with twin teenage children, she said:
“I got really depressed during the lockdown and emotionally, I didn’t know how long I could carry on doing it for. My chemotherapy didn’t wipe me out and I have a good prognosis for my cancer – I became more worried that it was COVID-19 that was going to be the illness that gets me. I’ve grown accustomed to the ‘Stay Home’ message, and now the idea of shielding lifting and returning to some semblance of normality is scary. It seems that the rules are murkier than ever and I am really unsure of what us ‘shielders’ are truly meant to be doing.
“I am shielding with my teenage twins and we are all petrified of the implications of the virus. I had become hugely anxious and torn about what to do for the best. I felt like I was burdening my children, so it has been a lifeline to chat with someone neutral and non-judgemental through Macmillan’s Telephone Buddies.”
Lynda Thomas, CEO at Macmillan Cancer Support, said:
“For many people, it is more frightening to be diagnosed with cancer now than during any other time in recent history. On top of the impact of a cancer diagnosis, patients now feel lost in lockdown. They are having to contend with the two potentially deadly Cs all at once, including uncertainty around treatment, shielding restrictions and isolation from loved ones, as well as concerns about their increased risk of contracting the virus.
“We’re doing everything we can do be there for people with cancer and want to encourage anyone who is struggling with the emotional and physical impacts of lockdown to get in touch with the Macmillan support line. But sadly, we can only make sure that no one faces cancer alone with the public’s support. We want to make sure cancer doesn’t become the forgotten ‘C’ during this pandemic – please donate to Macmillan today.”
As well as the toll that the pandemic is taking on wellbeing, the charity has warned about the impact of delays and disruption to cancer care as a result of coronavirus. Macmillan has urged UK governments to urgently deliver cancer service recovery plans to get treatment back on track and to meet the mental and physical health needs of people living with cancer. The charity is calling for prioritisation of NHS staffing and resources to deliver the safest possible care and catch up on delayed treatment; as well as calling on governments to ensure support for cancer patients’ holistic physical and mental health isn’t forgotten because of the pandemic.