COVID-19 has caused significant upheaval around the world and in Canada; no one is immune to its disruption. But for those in need of cancer care, there’s even more cause for concern.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, cancer diagnoses have declined by approximately 40 per cent world wide. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that more than 225,000 Canadians would be diagnosed with cancer in 2020, but according to a Metrika survey on the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian oncology practices, surveyed oncologists estimate that the number of newly diagnosed cancer patients seen in a three-month period has declined by 16 per cent compared to 2019.
Experts in the medical community are worried that further delays will have significant long-term implications on patient outcomes.
“The decline we’re seeing in cancer diagnoses is incredibly concerning because cancer is a progressive disease. It’s important that we catch it as early as possible so patients have the best chance of successful treatment,” said Dr. Stephanie Snow, Medical Oncologist. “When we have patients delaying appointments or screening, we risk seeing more advanced cases of cancer down the road. If we are not able to catch cancers early it can limit treatment options and access to clinical trials, leading to poorer patient outcomes.”
Unfortunately, some oncologists are already reporting an increase in late-stage disease for newly diagnosed patients compared to 2019.
Navigating cancer care can often be a challenging and emotional process. With the added disruption in healthcare services and fear of COVID-19 exposure, it’s no wonder many people living with cancer or who are experiencing symptoms that may be related to cancer, say they feel some level of anxiety about receiving cancer care.
Diane Van Keulen, 60, of Beaverton, Ontario, has been living with stage IV metastatic lung cancer since 2018. She knows her disease makes her more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, and has been extremely cautious about preventing her exposure to the virus.
“I was afraid to leave my house, even for treatment,” said Van Keulen. “I had a number of virtual appointments throughout 2020, which posed some challenges for the level of care I needed. I had to rely on my own understanding of my symptoms and memory to relay that information to my doctors over the phone. I was in pain, but I tended to downplay my symptoms, which made it even more difficult for my doctors to detect issues.”
By late summer, the pain and symptoms (coughing and vomiting) had become so severe, she had no choice but to seek emergency care. She was immediately admitted and, after a series of tests, her doctors found that one of the chest lymph nodes, though previously responsive to treatment, had tripled in size. It was putting pressure on her heart and digestive system.
It was then that Van Keulen received results from comprehensive genetic testing, which found a rare mutation that was likely responsible for the rapid cancer growth and the failure of three prior treatment protocols. With this information, her healthcare team started her on a new treatment that is now helping to shrink the multiple lung and lymph node tumours and slowing the cancer’s overall progression.
“Of course I regret waiting as long as I did. The fear of contracting the virus prevented me from taking action and getting the care I needed. I hope that others can learn from my experience and don’t hesitate when it comes to their cancer care,” said Van Keulen.
Despite the disruptions to healthcare services at the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare providers have learned from the first wave and adapted to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus for patients accessing care.
“To say that many of us are living with heightened anxiety amid the pandemic would be an understatement, but this is especially true for those living with cancer or pre-diagnosed cancer,” said Peter Glazier, Executive Vice President, Lung Health Foundation. “Lung cancer patients are particularly vulnerable as their respiratory system is already compromised. Patient anxiety may cause them to delay contacting their healthcare teams, but we are reminding them that cancer doesn’t wait, even during a global pandemic.”
The Lung Health Foundation, is one of more than 25 Canadian healthcare organizations that have come together in partnership with AstraZeneca Canada for the New Normal, Same Cancer campaign – urging Canadians to get back to cancer care.
“We want those with possible cancer symptoms or who have missed routine checks, appointments or treatments to consult their healthcare teams right away. Healthcare providers are working hard to ensure clean pathways are available where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is minimized, so patients can feel safe and focus on getting the care they need,” said Glazier.
Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to resume your cancer care. Contact your healthcare team and get checked.
This article is sponsored by AstraZeneca Canada and an alliance of healthcare partners.