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A major Ontario children’s hospital has diagnosed a significantly higher number of pediatric brain tumours since mid-March than it normally does, which the head oncologist believes may be an unexpected consequence of parents spending more time with their kids and noticing subtle changes during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Nine children at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) have been newly diagnosed with brain tumours since around mid-March, the time COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and lockdown restrictions took effect across Canada. In 2019, the hospital diagnosed a total of 18 brain tumours throughout the entire year.

“It’s been quite an onslaught,” said Donna Johnston, chief of the division of hematology and oncology at CHEO.

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Dr. Johnston said it’s not entirely clear why there’s an uptick in new brain tumour patients, but she and her colleagues believe school and child-care closures could be at the root. Parents are spending more time with their children than they would during a normal school year, which means they may be able to pick up on subtle changes that would otherwise go unnoticed for a longer period, she said.

“These kids are home with their parents 24/7 now,” Dr. Johnston said. “We’re thinking the parents are noticing symptoms they wouldn’t normally notice.”

In children, some of the most common symptoms of a brain tumour include headache, vomiting, weakness and a gait that is slightly off balance, she said. But some of these changes are easy to miss in the typical rushed day of school, dinner, homework and extra-curricular activities.

Juliette Hukin, director of the pediatric neuro-oncology program at BC Children’s Hospital, said the number of new childhood brain tumour diagnoses since the pandemic began is slightly lower at the hospital than is typical. While that isn’t necessarily indicative of a trend, as new cases tend to fluctuate from month to month, she said there is a concern that some families may be avoiding the hospital due to fears of COVID-19.

Around the world, case reports have started to emerge that show people are receiving new cancer diagnoses later, likely because people are showing up at the hospital later.

“We’re a little apprehensive that that might occur here,” Dr. Hukin said. “In general, emergency rooms have been quieter than normal since the lockdown.”

She said that parents should feel reassured that the hospital is safe and that they can bring their children in to be treated, even during the pandemic.

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In a statement, a spokesperson for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children said they have not seen an uptick in brain tumour diagnoses since the pandemic began.

On the other hand, CHEO’s increased caseload could mean that at least some of the children are receiving an earlier diagnosis, Dr. Johnston said, which could improve their overall prognosis.

“It’s always better to find it earlier. It’s smaller and it potentially hasn’t spread,” she said.

Childhood brain tumours are a priority diagnosis, she said, meaning that no treatments or surgeries are being delayed or postponed as a result of the pandemic. But families are facing major challenges as a result of visitor restrictions, which only allow one parent to stay with their child at a time, Dr. Johnston said. The hospital’s playroom is also closed, which makes life in the hospital harder for children, she said.

“It’s really hard for families,” Dr. Johnston said. “It’s way more stressful.”

It can be particularly difficult for parents who have to try and take care of other children who are at home, as schools remain closed and other child-care options are largely off-limits due to provincial restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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