News of the Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding’s death on Sunday 5 September shook fans and the wider British public. A generation had grown up following her career, from her first audition on 2002’s Popstars: the Rivals as a ponytailed 20-year-old belting out Steps’ “Last Thing on My Mind” to her performances with one of the most successful girl bands of the 21st century.
Harding was known to stun even her own bandmates with bold improvisations. She was independent, a self-described “big mouth” and the proud owner of a T-shirt bearing the slogan “well-behaved women don’t make history”, and she even joked in her 2021 memoir Hear Me Out that she should have “FFS” (“for fuck’s sake”) as her epitaph.
[See also: The quiet crisis of Britain’s missing patients]
Harding wrote earlier this year that she had expected Christmas 2020 to be her last, but her death still came as a shock. She died aged 39, and was only diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
Her mother, Marie, wrote on Instagram that her daughter would not “want to be remembered for her fight against this terrible disease – she was a bright shining star and I hope that’s how she can be remembered instead”.
Harding was also conflicted about how much she wanted the public to know about her illness and was, at first, “adamant” that her diagnosis would remain private.
“Writing about my cancer, I found myself thinking, ‘Do I want everyone to know this?’” she told the Times last March. “But I kept thinking that if there was a chance just one person who read my story decided to get checked and was treated in time, then it was worth it.”
In her memoir she urges readers to be vigilant about the early signs of cancer, and the importance of seeking medical advice even during the pandemic:
“There had been so much reporting on the news about people missing out on check-ups during Covid lockdown, even though they might be worried about something. People who had left a cancer diagnosis until it might be too late. Maybe if I spoke out, as a public figure, a celebrity, it could help get the message across how important it is to get checked out if you have concerns.”
She describes how, during the first Covid wave, she had almost been using the lockdown restrictions “as an excuse not to face up to the fact that something was very wrong”. All “any of us had seen on the news”, she wrote, “was how terrible the situation in hospitals was during the pandemic”.
Over the past 18 months, I have heard from many doctors and patients about the devastating consequences of delayed care and paused routine screening during the pandemic. “Where are all these patients?” one cancer doctor lamented over the phone to me last April, when emergency cancer admissions suddenly dropped off. “It’s not that people aren’t developing cancers, they are, but it’s just not getting picked up.”
“These are the forgotten victims,” I was told earlier this year by a woman whose mother had died after her chemotherapy was halted on the first day of the March 2020 lockdown.
People have been “turning up for the first time, being diagnosed for the first time, in accident and emergency. That should be a complete no-go, and it’s the sort of thing that was really rare before the pandemic,” an A&E doctor told me.
Healthcare bodies and cancer charities have warned of the critical gap in cancer care that has opened up during the pandemic: around 40,000 fewer patients started cancer treatment in the UK last year than in non-Covid times, according to the Lancet.
Meanwhile, Cancer Research UK revealed in June that around 10,600 fewer patients in England started treatment for breast cancer between April 2020 and March 2021 compared with the same period the year before.
The decline in cancer consultations – either resulting from squeezed NHS capacity or the public’s reluctance to seek healthcare – is a story of the Covid-19 crisis that has not yet reached its conclusion.
The government is reportedly planning to announce £5.5bn of extra funding for the NHS. Unless this is enough to clear the NHS backlog of a record 5.45 million patients waiting to undergo hospital treatment, then stories like Sarah Harding’s will become grimly familiar.