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More than 50 per cent of Canadians affected by cancer have had treatments and tests cancelled or delayed as a result of COVID-19 precautions, according to survey from the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.

The CCSN is calling on Canadian governments to ensure cancer care is made a top priority during any public-health crisis in the future, with president and chief executive officer Jackie Manthorne suggesting the absence of an expected boom in COVID-19 patients shows that cancer care appointments should not have been delayed at all.

“We now know that the huge physical, psychological and financial impact of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, while also facing cancer, has put these Canadians in double jeopardy,” Ms. Manthorne said.

“Treatments were put off, screenings were cancelled, and I think that given that we were not overwhelmed by the pandemic, we really didn’t need to do that.”

The national internet survey of 1,243 Canadians between May 22 and June 10, conducted by Leger for the CCSN, assessed disruptions in cancer care as a result of COVID-19. The survey included 960 Canadians diagnosed with cancer, as well as caregivers and patients in the prediagnosis stage, and found that 54 per cent of respondents had tests and treatments postponed or cancelled, including three-quarters of prediagnosis or recently diagnosed patients.

Nearly three-quarters of patients reported the delays had a major effect on their mental and emotional health. Additionally, 15 per cent of respondents said they had surgeries or procedures cancelled, and 62 per cent reported a clinical trial they were part of had been postponed or stopped.

While the majority of patients had access to virtual consultations with their doctors, 71 per cent said they remained concerned about the delays and cancellations of in-person tests and treatments, including emergency care.

“You can imagine how it feels if you’ve been going through tests to find out whether you actually have cancer and then suddenly they’re stopped, you’re left hanging – you don’t know if you have cancer or not,” Ms. Manthorne said.

Marcia Barton, a 50-year-old breast cancer survivor, was scheduled to have her annual mammogram in early June, which would then be followed by a visit to her oncologist to review the tests and ensure the cancer has not returned. But just two weeks before Ms. Barton’s appointment, she was informed it had been cancelled, and is still waiting to reschedule.

“This delay is making me very anxious because I don’t know what is happening inside my body,” Ms. Barton said.

She said she now has to cancel the oncologist appointment, since there are no mammogram results to discuss.

“It’s this kind of the trickle down effect, and I’m just one person, so imagine this happening to thousands of people in Ontario, who had breast cancer and other kinds of cancers in various stages,” Ms. Barton said.

While it is important to take precautions because of COVID-19, Ms. Manthorne said that in hindsight cancer care appointments could have continued because Canadian hospitals did not experience the huge wave of patients they were initially expecting.

“There are very real ways that cancer care could continue in large urban centres,” Ms. Manthorne said. She said in cities with multiple hospitals, COVID-19 patients could be centralized in one facility so that treatments for cancer and other serious illnesses could continue elsewhere in separate hospitals.

“With what happened in Canada in hindsight, we can say, to date, we could have continued cancer care. We could have continued care for other chronic diseases. We could have continued with surgery.”

In late April, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced that cancer and cardiac operations would take priority once COVID-19 restrictions on hospitals could be lifted, adding that Ontario saved thousands of lives by enacting emergency measures.

But a report from Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office estimated that, at that point, almost 53,000 procedures had been cancelled or delayed as a result of COVID-19.

In March, Cancer Care Ontario’s pandemic plan detailed how even “Priority A” cancer patients – the patients in extreme pain or in immediate life-threatening situations – could have some treatments delayed based on the seriousness of the pandemic.

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