Even under the best circumstances, having cancer can be an arduous emotional and physical journey. During a pandemic, it can feel completely overwhelming.
“We’re seeing the impacts of the pandemic on cancer care,” says Sandra Krueckl, executive vice-president of Mission, Information & Support Services for the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS). “We’re certainly concerned about how it’s affecting patients and their caregivers.”
CCS offers information and support programs for people affected by cancer, and recently launched a patient engagement survey to gauge how patients and caregivers are feeling and what their needs are during the pandemic. One of the major findings is that while 70 per cent of patients are feeling anxious, caregivers are feeling even more anxious. “Because of physical distancing, we are all feeling that sense of increased isolation and aloneness,” says Dr. Krueckl. “For patients, it amplifies feelings they were already experiencing. For caregivers, there are so many levels of burden, concern and responsibility that factor into increased anxiety. Plus, caregivers can’t rely on their normal networks to help them with daily tasks or emotional support right now. There is a lot of added pressure.”
Naturally, there’s worry about the increased risk with COVID-19 as cancer is an underlying medical condition that can result in more serious outcomes. “We’re hearing from patients who have questions about risks and vaccination for COVID-19. And they’re having anxiety about access to cancer treatment,” says Dr. Krueckl. “At the same time, there’s concern over interacting with health care at all – whether they should be going for diagnostics or reporting signs or symptoms of illness.”
We want people to see their doctor and get routine screening. It’s safe to go; don’t hesitate.— Dr. Sandra Krueckl, Executive vice-president of Mission, Information & Support Services for the Canadian Cancer Society
Dr. Krueckl emphasizes that health-care services are still intact and vital. “Health-care teams are working very hard to keep everyone safe. We want people to see their doctor and get routine screening. It’s safe to go; don’t hesitate. It is essential because it can have impacts down the road. When cancer is caught early, it is so much more treatable.”
CCS is particularly focused on ensuring people are aware of and making use of mental health resources. “Saying you need help with mental health isn’t something we all feel comfortable acknowledging,” says Dr. Krueckl. “The thing is, we’re all feeling this anxiety now. We want to connect people with the help they need.”
For Kim Sutherland, connection was key in helping her face breast cancer. As a social worker, she was accustomed to supporting others through tough times, but cancer made her realize she needed her own support system.
While she had friends and family to rely on, she also needed support from people who had gone through cancer. Living in a rural community made it challenging for her to join in-person cancer support groups so she turned to CancerConnection.ca, CCS’s online community for people affected by cancer and their loved ones. With COVID-19, CancerConnection has proven invaluable as a way to get and give support.
Sutherland found comfort from others who had breast cancer and could relate to her experiences. Now that she’s on the other side as a cancer survivor, she supports others on their cancer journeys as a community mentor on CancerConnection. “CCS provided me with connection – to a community so I didn’t feel alone, to information so I felt empowered by knowledge, and to others who understood the emotional and physical journey of cancer,” she says. This is precisely the type of connection that’s needed more than ever right now.
It’s critical for people living with cancer, their caregivers and survivors to stay connected with support networks, especially during the pandemic. “We want to encourage people to reach out to CCS (1-888-939-3333) if they need information, are struggling with mental health or have any concerns,” says Dr. Krueckl. “We really want to help.”
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