Cancer patients are being pushed to “breaking point” because of a lack of support from overstretched nurses and carers, a leading charity has warned.
Almost half of specialist cancer nurses have told the Macmillan Cancer Support charity that their high workload was having a negative impact on patient care, while one in five people diagnosed with the disease say the staff responsible for their care have unmanageable demands.
Now the charity says this is affecting patients, with thousands calling its specialist support helpline in distress and worried because they feel they can’t get answers from their health workers.
More than 240,000 people have called the charity’s specialist helpline, a similar number to last year, but the numbers now being supported by the charity have increased to more than 65,000 – 7 per cent more than in 2018 and 14 per cent more than in 2017.
The NHS is preparing to unveil a new 28-day target for patients to be diagnosed or given the all-clear when they are suspected of having cancer. While the new target is being welcomed, experts have warned shortages in diagnostic staff may mean it is undeliverable.
Cancer waiting times performance on the NHS has been steadily declining. Across all nine cancer targets, the last 12 months has seen the lowest proportion of patients seen or treated in any year since records began.
Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It’s heart-rending that so many people call at breaking point having struggled to find the support they need from their healthcare team who we know are run ragged and doing the best they can.
“NHS staff do an extraordinary job faced with huge pressures, but as increased demand for our services shows there simply aren’t enough of them to meet the needs of the growing number of people living with cancer.”
The number one reason callers contacted Macmillan was for emotional support, with 20 per cent more people calling with issues such as anxiety, fear and depression than the previous year.
For more than 5,000 people, issues with accessing hospital or community care were the main reason they called – the second most common reason for calling after emotional support.
This related to difficulties contacting staff, accessing specialist equipment at home or with support accessing local hospice services.
More people needed help with accessing care than with side-effects of treatment and pain combined, and the number has increased by 11 per cent this year.
Staff also reported callers needing support for “scanxiety” – anxiety caused by waiting for results and treatment.
Ellen Lang, a service manager on Macmillan’s support line, said: “When you only have 10 minutes with your doctor and your nurse is visibly rushed off their feet, it’s inevitable that you’ll leave without all the answers you need.
“This is something we’re seeing people experiencing more often. For us a big part of the role is to fill in the gaps which cause so much distress and anxiety for patients and their loved ones.”
She said: “In recent times, with the pressures on the NHS, I’ve become less likely to contact the hospital for fear of being a nuisance, but this has an impact on my mental health. I live in three-month chunks these days, always waiting to see what happens at the next scan. Managing that uncertainty long term can be hard. The Macmillan Support Line has been such a lifeline for me.”
The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones, and is staffed by cancer information advisors, cancer information nurses, financial guides, a work support team, welfare rights advisers and an energy advice team.
The free phone line can be called on 0808 808 00 00, seven days a week, from 8am to 8pm.