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39,000 people with cancer in Wales ‘afraid to leave the house’

Macmillan Cancer Support is warning of the devastating impact coronavirus is having on the physical and mental health of people with cancer in Wales as they face the two ‘deadly Cs’ all at once, and is urging those struggling with lockdown to contact its support line service.

New research by the charity reveals for the first time the scale of fear and anxiety tens of thousands of people in Wales are facing as they deal with both the threat of cancer and Covid-19. The results suggest a staggering 39,000 people with cancer in Wales (23%)have barely left the house because they’re scared about catching the virus or generally scared/anxious about leaving the house. A shocking 9,000 (5%) have experienced panic or anxiety attacks because of the virus.

Macmillan is concerned that last week’s announcements about how shielding will start to be phased out in England and Northern Ireland could add to people’s worries if they feel information is unclear or support could be taken away.

It is estimated around 22,000 people with cancer in Wales (13%) have not left the house at all since the start of lockdown and say they won’t feel safe enough to do so until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, or when there are zero new cases of the virus being reported.

The virus and associated lockdown has left more than one in four (28%) people with cancer in Wales (48,000) feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Close to one in 10 (8%) – around 13,000 people in Wales – have seen their mental health worsen due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, around one in seven (14%) have experienced a decline in their physical health during lockdown, including sleep problems (9%), fatigue or extreme tiredness (7%), or pain (7%) Around half of people with cancer in Wales (55%) have not taken any outdoor exercise at all.

The latest research also suggests the number of people with cancer across the UK who have chosen to ‘shield’ at home is much 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. This is almost three times as many as official estimates, and includes 48,000 of those with cancer in Wales. As of 15th June more than 400,0000 people with cancer in the UK (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.

Macmillan is calling for the Welsh Government to continue prioritising the mental and physical health of people living with cancer. This must include the allocation of staffing and resources needed to deliver the safest possible care.

Heather, 49, from Cardiff, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in December 2019, said:

“I can’t overstate the impact of anxiety about possible impact of coronavirus on treatment plans. For me, this was another layer of anxiety, falling on top of anxiety caused by diagnosis, by treatment, and by being at increased risk of catching coronavirus.

“At the very time I was supposed to be shielding – and I was – I was also having to go to hospital every day for treatment.

“Having an underlying condition like cancer made me feel expendable. I know a lot of people with cancer felt that way.

“Talking to other patients online from across the UK, I know that treatment plans have been reduced, postponed or cancelled as resources have been diverted elsewhere.

“Knowing this has made me feel guilty because I am still being treated, and anxious that I might suddenly fall into the ‘unlucky’ category.”

Richard Pugh, Head of Partnerships for Macmillan Cancer Support in Wales, says:

“Since the start of lockdown, Macmillan has been campaigning for cancer not to become the forgotten ‘C’ during this pandemic. 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 usual worries about a cancer diagnosis, patients now feel lost in lockdown, having to contend with 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 during the pandemic, but these findings show the devastating emotional and physical legacy awaiting cancer patients if  the Welsh Government does not urgently prioritise their physical and mental health.”