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Cancer patient says ‘I missed my chance’ to live as doctors moved to treat Covid

Dr Philippa Hetherington told the Health and Social Care Committee the Government must make cancer treatment a priority as ‘people are dying waiting for treatment’

A terminally-ill cancer patient told MPs she missed her chance to get life saving treatment because her doctor was redeployed to change bed pans during Covid’s second wave.

In a moving account, Dr Philippa Hetherington said her mental health took a drastic dip as she no longer had a doctor who was making “active plans” to save her life, and did not even have anyone to talk to.

“I was surprised when my oncologist was redeployed. I understood cancer services would be protected (during the pandemic), she told the Health and Social Care Committee.

“But when I asked (my oncologist) if she was moved to help cancer Covid patients, she said she was emptying bed pans.”

Dr Hetherington said it was difficult enough, having to learn that she had stage 4 cancer over the phone, let alone missing her chance to have the best form of cancer.



Dr Hetherington expressed how lonely she felt when her doctor was moved to the Covid unit as she only received impersonal calls from doctors checking that she wasn’t having particular side effects
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“I missed a chance to get immunotherapy which is the best first line treatment for this cancer.

“We couldn’t find out if I had it for a while because there was no one around to do my biopsy. I even tried to call private surgeries too and was told I needed to be put on chemotherapy. So I missed this chance.”

She added: “I was on chemotherapy, and I was having telephone appointments. I just got a fill in doctor who would check in to make sure I was coping.

“But that person didn’t know me at all, they were just asking about my side effects.”

Dr Hetherington, from East London, was diagnosed with stage four triple-negative breast cancer (TNSBC) in 2019 which has a life expectancy of just 12 to 18 months.



Professor Mike Griffin, President at Royal College of Surgeons warns cancer surgical treatment will experience another backlog in the coming weeks because of a shortage in nurses
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“The fact that I was told I had stage 4 cancer over the phone speaks to the mental health impact of going through cancer treatment during Covid. Not being able to take people with me to difficult appointments as I learned my tumours had spread was really hard.”

The Russian History lecturer at the University College London said appeared in the place of Emma Metcalfe but she had died waiting for her medication to be approved.

“‘Patients are definitely dying while they’re waiting”, Dr Hetherington said, “and not everyone has money to get help from private healthcare”.

NHS cancer patients may not have seen the worst as Professor Mike Griffin, President at Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh said “cancer surgery will take a hit over the coming weeks”.

Prof Griffin explained cancer treatment relies heavily on surgery and surgeons are nothing without nurses, nurses in the theatre room and nurses to free bed space.


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