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

West Shore Parks and Recreation facilities face a challenging future in terms of funding, due to reduced operations throughout the pandemic. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore Parks and Recreation faces challenging future

West Shore Parks and Recreation Society submits 2021 budget request to owner municipalities

Saskatoon resident liajah Pidskalny poses with his bike near the University of Victoria after putting on thousands of kilometres to raise awareness of the overdose and mental health crisis. (Courtesy Iliajah Pidskalny)
Saskatoon cyclist winds up mental health and overdose awareness ride in Victoria

Iliajah Pidskalny braves prairie winter conditions to get word out to communities

(Black Press Media file photo)
Saanich police seek suspect after woman nearly robbed while getting out of vehicle

Incident occurred before 7 a.m. Feb. 17 in parking lot off Cordova Bay Road

BC Ferries experienced heavy traffic on Feb. 27 following cancellations the day before due to strong winds and adverse weather. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries sailings fill up quickly after cancellations on Friday due to high winds

Waits expected on Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route, Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay route

Gabriel Swift, 23, is one of three Victoria filmmakers chosen to receive $20,000 Telus Storyhive grants to produce Local Heroes documentaries. (Courtesy of Gabriel Swift)
Three Victoria filmmakers producing ‘local heroes’ documentaries with $20,000 grants

Telus Storyhive providing $20,000 to 40 Western Canada productions

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

The first of 11 Dash 8 Q400 aircraft's have arrived in Abbotsford. Conair Group Inc. will soon transform them into firefighting airtankers. (Submitted)
Abbotsford’s Conair begins airtanker transformation

Aerial firefighting company creating Q400AT airtanker in advance of local forest fire season

Most Read