Doctors fear an impending wave of cancer patients after COVID-19 delays

Cancer research has also suffered during the pandemic due to the cancellation of major fundraisers

Diane Van Keulen, shown in a handout photo, a lung cancer patient from Ontario, has been battling the disease since 2019. She says she delayed her potential recovery and treatment out of fear of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS

Diane Van Keulen, shown in a handout photo, a lung cancer patient from Ontario, has been battling the disease since 2019. She says she delayed her potential recovery and treatment out of fear of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS

While the prospectof mass vaccination has raised hopes of the COVID-19 crisis soon waning, oncologists and cancer researchers say one of its grim legacies may be a lingering increase in cancer mortality rates.

The pandemic caused a “dramatic” drop in cancer screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, leading to fewer diagnoses, according to Dr. Gerald Batist, the head of the Segal Cancer Centre at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital.

“It just looks like less people were diagnosed, and they were, but there weren’t fewer people with that diagnosis,” Batist said in a phone interview. “They simply weren’t found.”

According to a report released last month, the Quebec government estimates that some 4,119 people with cancer went undiagnosed due to a drop in screening programs. At the Cedars Cancer Centre of the MUHC, new patients were down 22 per cent compared with the previous year, while the number of cancer surgeries declined 11 per cent.

The trend was similar in other provinces. In Alberta, for example, the number of new invasive cancer diagnoses reported to the provincial cancer registry declined 10 per cent relative to 2019 after the pandemic hit, according to Alberta Health Services, which noted that those numbers would be expected to increase due to a growing and aging population.

Even Nova Scotia, which has comparatively few COVID-19 cases, saw a 15 per cent reduction in the number of cancer surgeries booked over the summer, likely due to a shutdown in screening services and people having trouble accessing their primary care physicians, according to the senior director of the province’s Cancer Care program. Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst said it is possible that the temporary suspension of cancer screening programs and other services during the first wave may result in more patients being diagnosed at a later stage in the future, but there is no data yet to confirm this.

Batist said that in Montreal during the first wave, doctors were forced to triage cancer patients, deciding which ones could wait longer for surgeries without affecting their prognosis — an anxiety-inducing prospect for patients and physicians alike.

“We felt for the most part that our judgments were right,” he said. “And for some cases, it was detrimental to the patients.”

Batist said it will take a couple of years to know whether the interruptions will have a negative impact on survival rates. But he says that, anecdotally, he and other doctors are seeing newly diagnosed patients come in with more advanced cancers, perhaps reflecting a delay in screening.

Diane Van Keulen, a 60-year-old lung cancer patient from Beaverton, about an hour north of Toronto, knows the impact the pandemic can have on patients.

At the beginning of August, after a recent bout of chemotherapy, she resisted going to the emergency room for three weeks out of fear of catching the virus, despite severe gastrointestinal and heart issues. When her husband finally insisted on taking her into the hospital on Aug. 22, she learned that her symptoms were due to one of her tumours having tripled in size within weeks.

“I delayed my own potential recovery and treatment because I was too terrified to go into the waiting room,” she said in a phone interview.

Van Keulen is now on a new drug that is helping. But she wonders what might have happened had she gone to hospital earlier. “Rather than the tumours growing as big as they did, they would have been a bit smaller when I started this treatment, and maybe the treatment would have been more effective,” she said.

Cancer advocates say the pandemic has affected patients in countless ways, from the stress of delayed treatments to the difficult logistics of hotel stays for multi-day treatments.

For many, one of the hardest parts has been having to face life-altering appointments alone due to restrictions on visitors and travel bans, according to Jackie Manthorne, the president and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.

“One woman from P.E.I. (told me) her family’s on the Prairies, and she can’t go there and they can’t go to P.E.I.,” Manthorne said. “She’s afraid she won’t see them again.”

Van Keulen says that her cancer is advanced enough that none of her treatments were delayed. But she says her care still suffered, partly because most doctors’ appointments shifted online, depriving her physician of the ability to observe her condition.

During the pandemic’s second wave, Batist says, hospitals have started to catch up on delayed procedures. In recent weeks, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has dropped, freeing up resources.

Cancer research has also suffered during the pandemic due to the cancellation of major fundraisers, lab closures and the shift of some resources toward the COVID-19 effort. Last year, the Canadian Cancer Society’s research budget was slashed due to a drop in fundraising, even though government funding was maintained, according to the group’s vice-president for research.

“It does have an immediate and very strong effect on the charitable sector, and their ability to continue with their research funding at the same level,” Dr. Judith Bray said in a phone interview.

While the group managed to shift to online fundraising, and labs are getting back to work, she says it will be a while until they’re at full pace.

But Batiste and Bray maintain that the pandemic’s impact on cancer research has not been all negative.

Both noted that COVID-19 has increased global research collaboration, sped up processes, created a push for open-access publications and highlighted the crucial role of scientists — all of which can help cancer research in the future.

Bray notes that some of the therapies studied to fight the pandemic could potentially help cancer patients as well, noting that the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines was originally developed in the oncology field.

“I do think that in the end, research overall, scientific research and particularly health research will benefit from some of the things we’ve had to do,” she said.

ALSO READ: Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CancerCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged that Friday would be one year since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three more Red Deer COVID-19 deaths, 331 active cases in Alberta

Red Deer is down to 362 active cases of the virus

The remains of Terry Bearden’s property before a demolition crew came in to remove debris. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey arson case may have a lead thanks to reward offered by owner

Anonymous tip alleges the fire was set by three local males

hands
The call is out in Rimbey to sign on with a group that is all about building connections

‘Already, we are building a network where we can rely on each other and help each other out’

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says Albertans need to keep making safe choices to start bending the curve back down. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
One new COVID-19 death in Red Deer, 257 additional cases province-wide

Red Deer sits at 459 active cases of the virus

A health-care worker looks at a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province, Monday, March 1, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Nearly 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in Canada this week: Anand

Anita Anand says she’s received assurances from the vaccine manufacturer

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Backcountry skiers are dwarfed by the mountains as they make their way along a mountain ridge near McGillivray Pass Lodge located in the southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Avalanche Canada has issued a special warning to people who use the backcountry in the mountains of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Avalanche Canada special warning for mountains in western Alberta, eastern B.C.

Avalanche Canada also says everyone in a backcountry party needs essential rescue gear

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

FILE - Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning singer, actor and humanitarian posted a video on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, of her singing just before getting her COVID-19 vaccine shot. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee for coronavirus research. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
‘Vaccine, vaccine’: Dolly sings ‘Jolene’ rewrite before shot

The Grammy-winning legend turned 75 this year

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks about the Fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday November 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID-19: Wage and rent subsidies, lockdown support to be extended until June

Chrystia Freeland says now is not time to lower levels of support

Many rural seniors are having to travel a long way to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stettler residents are being told to go to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose. (Black Press file photo).
Rural central Alberta seniors have to travel far to get vaccines

Stettler residents are being directed to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose clinics

Samantha Sharpe, 25, was stabbed to death at Sunchild First Nation on Dec. 12, 2018. Chelsey Lagrelle was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for manslaughter in a Red Deer courtroom on Tuesday. Photo contributed
Central Alberta woman sentenced to 4 1/2 years for stabbing friend to death in 2018

Chelsey Lagrelle earlier pleaded guilty to stabbing Samantha Sharpe during argument

Calgary police say they received 80 hate crime complaints between January and November 2020. (Pixabay)
‘Racism is a real problem:’ Muslim women fearful following attacks in Edmonton

So far in 2021, three of seven hate-crime-related investigations have involved Somali-Muslim women

Most Read