BACKGROUND: The restructuring of healthcare systems to cope with the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a reduction in clinical services such as cancer screening and diagnostics.
METHODS: Data from the four Northern Ireland pathology laboratories were used to assess trends in pathological cancer diagnoses from 1st March to 12th September 2020 overall and by cancer site, sex and age. These trends were compared to the same timeframe from 2017 to 2019.
RESULTS: Between 1st March and 12th September 2020, there was a 23% reduction in cancer diagnoses compared to the same time period in the preceding 3 years. Although some recovery occurred in August and September 2020, this revealed inequalities across certain patient groups. Pathological diagnoses of lung, prostate and gynaecological malignancies remained well below pre-pandemic levels. Males and younger/middle-aged adults, particularly the 50-59-year-old patient group, also lagged behind other population demographic groups in terms of returning to expected numbers of pathological cancer diagnoses.
CONCLUSIONS: There is a critical need to protect cancer diagnostic services in the ongoing pandemic to facilitate timely investigation of potential cancer cases. Targeted public health campaigns may be needed to reduce emerging inequalities in cancer diagnoses as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.