The Irish Cancer Society has warned of reduced survival chances due to a dramatic reduction in the number of cancer surgeries at a time when GP referrals increased.
A 20% reduction in the number of cancer surgeries carried out last year compared to 2019 has been described as "really troubling" and "disturbing".
While the number of GP referrals to cancer rapid access clinics in 2021 was 30% higher than in 2019, the number of people undergoing surgical oncology was 20% lower than pre-pandemic levels.
The number of patients receiving radiation oncology between January and November 2021 was also down 15% on 2019 activity, while those on chemotherapy was 5% lower.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, who was diagnosed with cancer towards the end of the first Covid lockdown said: "It is really troubling to see that the number of patients undergoing surgical oncology was down by a massive 20% last year.
"Like many others, I delayed going to the doctor because of the restrictions. I’m now recovered while still going for regular check-ups, but I’m one of the lucky ones," said Mr Tóibín who received the information from Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.
The Irish Cancer Society said "unacceptable delays" in accessing surgery and treatment can lead to reduced chances of survival for patients, who may already be seeking help at a later stage than before the pandemic.
Policy and public affairs manager with the Irish Cancer Society, Paul Gordon said: "We know that up to 14% less cancer cases were diagnosed in 2020, so it is absolutely essential that our health services are properly resourced to deal with extra demand from those not diagnosed in 2020 and 2021 as we move out of the emergency phase of the pandemic.
"The Irish Cancer Society has for some time been highlighting the need to bolster cancer services in preparation for a ‘catch-up’ trend for patients whose diagnosis may be delayed due to the pandemic, and these figures highlight the challenges this is posing for cancer treatment in particular."
He urged the Government to put protected pathways in place for cancer care so that access to hospital beds and operating theatres is not an issue.
Stephen McMahon of the Irish Patients Association described the figures as "very disturbing" and said the group has been calling for a National Public Health emergency Team-style taskforce to deal with non-Covid healthcare for the past 18 months due to concerns around missed and delayed diagnoses.
"Even with Covid we should have had a small taskforce to actually start making detailed plans to connect with those patients," he said.
Mr Tóibín, who received the information after submitting a parliamentary question, said his party has always been of the view that the Government was wrong to shut down the health service to the extent that it did during the pandemic.
Cancer services are essential services and should always have been deemed as such. Cancer screening services like CervicalCheck and BreastCheck were all completely paused for considerable periods of time.
"How many diagnoses were missed or delayed as a result of the closure of our screening services?" he asked.
He called on the Government to provide the necessary investments to ensure that cancer screening operates at a capacity higher than 100% of pre-Covid capacity in order to catch up.
Mr Donnelly said funding of €5m has been provided in 2022 to continue the work of supporting cancer services and increasing capacity in the context of Covid-19. This is in addition to the €12m allocated in 2021.
"This funding is facilitating additional clinics and the extension of clinic times, as well as allowing for minor infrastructural works to be carried out and for locum and temporary staff to be recruited to support the delivery of services," Mr Donnelly said.
He said significant investment has been put into the implementation of the National Cancer Strategy, with €20m provided in 2021 and a further €20m in 2022.