Published: 00:02, 06 November 2018
One in six cancer patients in Canterbury are only being diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital, alarming figures reveal.
New statistics released by Public Health England show in the 12 months to March, 1,174 patients were admitted to hospital with cancer in the NHS Canterbury and Coastal Clinical Commissioning Group area, with most referred by their GP or through screening programmes.
But 194 patients - about 16.5% - were classed as an "emergency presentation of cancer", meaning they were first diagnosed at the hospital when attending A&E or while being treated for something unrelated.
Survival rates of emergency admissions are substantially worse than routine referrals with patients more likely to have more advanced and difficult to treat cancers.
Cancer Research UK is calling for more awareness, better training of GPs and increased resources for the NHS to help ensure more people are diagnosed early.
Fiona Osgun, from the charity, says it is important for patients to see their GP if they notice a change in their body.
"Your chances of survival can change so much if the cancer is diagnosed earlier or later", she said.
In the latest annual Cancer Patient Experience Survey for the Canterbury area, figures show 14% of patients who went to their GP with a cancer-related health complaint saw their doctor three or four times before being told to go to hospital.
A further 7% had five or more appointments.
Ms Osgun points out that the reasons behind some emergency presentations are complex and not necessarily the result of symptoms being missed by GPs.
“Some cancers, such as brain cancer, have vaguer or more sudden symptoms than others, while GPs are also reliant on the wider NHS system to investigate quickly after a referral,” she said.
The new statistics have sparked calls by the parents of a young girl who died suddenly from a brain tumour for more training of GPs and other frontline staff to spot early symptoms of cancer.
Ten years ago Ashley and Kerry Bubb, of Woodside Road in Sturry, lost their daughter Molly – just three weeks after she first started displaying symptoms.
They had noticed the four-year-old’s face had started to droop so her GP referred her to hospital.
But doctors at Kent & Canterbury mistook it for Bell’s palsy, a mild paralysis of nerves in the face, and the family was told to return in a week for a check-up.
During that week, Molly started getting headaches and vomiting but her parents were told it was a viral infection. An out-of-hours GP service said the same after two more days of vomiting.
Finally, a week later, Molly was given a scan which showed small tumours on her brain, but doctors at the QEQM diagnosed her with neurofibromatosis, a harmless tumorous growth.
It was only when she was taken to the Evelina Children’s Hospital in London that it was revealed the tumours had trebled in size and the cancer had spread to her spine.
There was nothing medics could do and she tragically died just days later.
Mrs Bubb says earlier diagnosis would not have saved her, but she would have been given the appropriate medication to make her final days more comfortable.
“I would say it’s not just GPs, but all doctors on that frontline of care - it’s about educating them and educating the public,” she said.
“They need to know more about those early symptoms.”
After Molly’s death, Mrs Bubb launched a fundraising drive, raising more than £70,000 to launch HeadSmart, a campaign helping with awareness of symptoms, research and early diagnosis of brain tumours in children.
Since its inception in 2011, average diagnosis time has dropped from 13 weeks to six weeks.
“When the HeadSmart campaign started it was about education – not just GPs, but the frontline of healthcare professionals," she said.
“People may go to minor injury units, their GP or the hospital. They all need to know the symptoms.
“We made a friend whose young son died of a brain tumour. He didn’t have good balance, but in a toddler you might just say they are clumsy.
“It’s looking out for all these symptoms. Are they vomiting? Do they have headaches?”
Mrs Bubb, who is collecting money for the Brain Tumour Trust at the Russell Watson concert at the Marlowe next month, says the family wants to use Molly’s story as a way to get the word out there.
Ashley Bubb says they were told Molly’s symptoms were caused by numerous other things and the constant misdiagnosis meant there were many highs and lows.
“A brain tumour is not the first thing you think of,” he said.
“This is why knowing the symptoms is so important.”
Former police officer Tony Kirkbank, of Blackthorn Road in Hersden, agrees that knowing the symptoms is vital for early diagnosis.
The 75-year-old was diagnosed with bladder cancer after numerous trips to his GP.
He first saw his doctor in September 2000 after he began passing blood and was told it was polyps, which are usually harmless, and told to come back if it happened again.
After more GP visits, he eventually presented himself to hospital and after an examination was diagnosed with bladder cancer in February 2001.
“I would still have a bladder had my symptoms been picked up in that first visit,” he said.
“I had my bladder, prostate, appendix and adjacent lymph glands removed in the April.”
Mr Kirkbank says his life completely changed as he had to have a stoma fitted.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “I was passing blood but I had no pain. It was only because I became blocked up completely that I went to hospital.”
His experience prompted him to start campaigning about the high death rates and the vital need for early diagnosis and treatment of bladder cancer, which is the seventh most common cause of cancer death in men in the UK.
He also wrote a book, A Uniformed Response, about his time in the police force, with proceeds going to Action Bladder Cancer UK.