This past year has been like no other as we work to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. What has united the world and reshaped our priorities is a seemingly unstoppable virus. And yet, there’s an insidious disease we’ve been seeking to eradicate for much longer and that continues to take lives and affect millions of people worldwide: cancer.
Every year, on February 4, World Cancer Day aims to raise global attention and inspire action for a cancer-free future. But this year, our focus must be more immediate: helping people with cancer survive the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 led to a quickly changing environment. Our government and health-care leaders in Canada made incredibly difficult decisions to ensure there was capacity nationwide to support those who are affected by the virus. But as COVID-19 cases continue, our health-care system is straining and, in some cases, failing. With more people with COVID-19 in hospitals and, in particular, ICUs, one result has been cancelled or postponed surgeries, including cancer surgeries, in some areas. This has life-threatening impacts for people with cancer.
“The best way to help people with cancer right now is to do your part to end the pandemic,” says Andrea Seale, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). “For almost a year, we’ve been asked to follow public health measures – wash our hands, wear masks, keep our distance, avoid non-essential travel. We know these actions will help stop the spread of COVID-19. It is also important to know that they can mean the difference between life and death for someone with cancer.”
Ultimately, the fewer COVID-19 cases, the more likely it is that those with cancer will receive the uninterrupted care they need for the best chance of survival. Data from March to June of 2020 from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows a 20 per cent reduction in cancer surgeries performed in Canada, compared to the same timeframe in 2019. A CCS-led survey of people with cancer and caregivers found that almost half – 47 per cent – of cancer patients reported having their cancer care appointments postponed or disrupted. The same or worse can be expected now as Canada is well into a second wave, with caseloads eclipsing those of the first.
For almost a year, we’ve been asked to follow public health measures – wash our hands, wear masks, keep our distance, avoid non-essential travel. We know these actions will help stop the spread of COVID-19. It is also important to know that they can mean the difference between life and death for someone with cancer.— Andrea Seale, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society
For Canadians awaiting testing to determine if they have cancer, treatment for verified cancer or an appointment to see if they have a recurrence of cancer, time is of the essence. “This is a crisis for people living with cancer,” emphasizes Seale. “Nationwide, governments are still trying to clear the backlog created from the first wave of the pandemic. We can’t afford to add to the backlog in this second wave.”
A Canadian-led study, published in the British Medical Journal in November 2020, demonstrated that even just a four-week delay in cancer treatment increased risk of death by about 10 per cent. Through CCS’s support programs, Seale says they hear from people with cancer who are deeply concerned about these delays. “Their care is not the top priority, they are waiting, and they know that the consequences of treatment delays could be catastrophic.”
Quarantines and physical distancing measures, while absolutely necessary, add to the challenges for people living with cancer as they are more isolated from the support network of friends, family and community organizations. This isolation compounds the stress and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis and during treatment. This is especially a concern among seniors, where cancer rates are higher.
“There are many reasons to be hopeful as vaccines roll out across the country. Science is moving at hyper speed, and the global race to tackle COVID-19 is inspiring. But we are not at the finish line yet,” says Seale. “Our collective actions in the coming months are critical to determining when we will come out the other side of this pandemic and how quickly people living with cancer will get access to the life-saving care and compassionate support that they need.”
CANADIAN CANCER SOCIETY (CCS) SUPPORT SERVICES
CCS continues to provide programs for people with cancer and their caregivers, especially during the pandemic when they may be dealing with added challenges of accessing health care and feelings of anxiety or isolation.
Cancer Information Helpline
The national helpline, available in 200 languages, is accessible to anyone with questions about cancer;
Cancer hasn’t stopped during the pandemic, and CSS is keen to ensure that people still have access to gold standard information and support.
Community Services Locator (csl.cancer.ca)
A directory of 4,000+ services supporting those affected by cancer. This tool helps people find the services that can make a difference for someone living with cancer.
An online forum to share experiences and support for anyone impacted by cancer. Connecting with others who have walked a similar path is helpful for both people living with cancer and their caregivers.
The Canadian Cancer Society’s support system helps people with cancer and their caregivers live their lives as fully as possible. Other programs include support in getting to treatment, assistance with somewhere to stay during treatment, camps for children and young adults, wigs and breast prostheses.
Learn more at cancer.ca.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.