We look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting those with pre-existing or undiagnosed asbestos-related conditions.
As the NHS is under intense pressure to treat patients affected by COVID-19, Cancer Research UK and other charities are highlighting the impact this pandemic is having on cancer diagnosis, treatment and other services.
They report the emergence of key themes in cancer services across the UK, all of which are borne out of comments from our clients, from medical professionals and asbestos support groups.
Delayed diagnosis of asbestos-related conditions
The first problem is that people with early symptoms of what might be a benign or malignant asbestos-related disease, typically, shortness of breath and/or a persistent cough, are not attending their GP to report those symptoms, for fear of COVID-19 infection. Even if they do contact their GP, it might be thought that these symptoms relate to the virus itself, not to any underlying asbestos-related illness.
The fact that fewer people are going to their GP is affecting the normal diagnostic pathways. In many cases, people exhibiting symptoms are not being sent for chest X-rays or CT scans. In some cases, the number of urgent “two-week referrals” for cases of suspected cancers has dropped to around 25% of the normal levels in England.
While in some parts of the country, diagnostic testing is effectively on hold for the time being. Some GPs are understandably worried about referring patients to hospital, for fear of COVID-19 infection there.
Effect of COVID-19 on mesothelioma treatment plans
In the current climate, patients with a pre-existing diagnosis, who haven’t yet started their mesothelioma treatment or are yet to begin chemotherapy for other asbestos-related lung cancers, may experience delays to the start of their treatment. In some instances, treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery are being delayed for three months or more.
The problem being raised by doctors treating these patients is that after this time, the possibility of surgery will be reduced, and the efficacy of chemotherapy or other therapies might be compromised. Early detection and treatment are key to patients gaining maximum benefit from available treatments. This means every delay could have catastrophic results.
Some hospitals have also paused treatment for patients already undergoing treatment for mesothelioma or lung cancer, leaving patients feeling very anxious about their illness and future.
Balancing the risks
It’s widely accepted among medical professionals that many cancer patients are at increased risk of complications, following COVID-19 infection. Meanwhile, many ‘fitter’ patients, especially those who could benefit from treatment or surgery, are thought to be at no greater risk from the epidemic than the general population.
However, potentially life-saving treatment is being withheld from these patients.
One doctor recently acknowledged on Radio 4 Today that the risk of infection during hospital treatment was far lower than the risk of death from late diagnosis and treatment of cancers. This included asbestos-related lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Access to palliative care for asbestos-related diseases
Where a disease is at an advanced stage, and palliative care is the only suitable therapy, access to these services is also being affected. Many of those living with asbestos diseases are elderly and on government advice, are isolating in their homes.
As a result, they are unable to receive the comfort of having younger family members or friends around them. This pain is also felt by loved ones, who would like to be physically present with them at this challenging time.
On a positive note, one client told me that due to the COVID-19 restrictions, her family had been unable to visit her husband, who was receiving palliative care for mesothelioma in a local hospice.
A nurse had arranged a WhatsApp call for the whole family so that they could see and speak to one another. Tragically, he passed away the following day. However, this last phone call gave them all some comfort of being able to communicate with him before his passing.
The effect of the focus on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be felt by sufferers of asbestos-related diseases until the treatment of COVID-19 patients is centralised, and the wider risk of contracting the virus contained.
Where you can find support
During this uncertain time, people are being encouraged to report symptoms to their GP. In turn, doctors are being encouraged to continue diagnostic testing and treatment, under protected conditions, wherever possible. Asbestos support groups and other charities can also provide invaluable support at this time.
Our experienced team can manage your asbestos compensation claim, to relieve you of some of the stress and hassle. We aim to do everything possible to help ease your anxiety throughout your treatment – especially in these uncertain times.
For more information, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our specialist solicitors on 0808 252 5231 to discuss your potential compensation for asbestos-related disease. To request a call back please complete our contact form.