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COVID-19 is affecting cancer care far more than we thought

COVID-19 is affecting cancer care far more than we thought

The tenacity of COVID-19, still keeping a tight grip on our lives, has a disastrous impact on cancer care. Figures prove that the consequences of the pandemic on cancer patients are much worse than expected.

With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, huge pressure has again been placed on our healthcare services. This has, once more, lead to de-prioritisation of non-COVID-19–related non-emergency clinical services. As a result, consultations with physicians are postponed and patients with cancer are facing delays in their treatments.

In these conditions, early diagnosis and treatment is difficult. Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood of metastatic cancer, often leading to incurable disease with very limited life expectancy.

Moreover, cancer screening and early detection services have been suspended in many countries. Prevention programmes, including Hepatitis B virus (HBV) and Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, are impacted, with consequent concern about how catch-up can realistically occur.


The European Cancer Summit

As the impact of COVID-19 on cancer is truly a problem, the topic has been addressed at the recent summit of the European Cancer Organisation, organised on the 18th and 19th of November 2020.

Mark Lawler (1) showed that the COVID-19 related delay in cancer care in the UK has already resulted in a significant impact on survival with sizeable loss of life years.

Estimates of survival compared with pre-pandemic figures were made for 4 cancer types (published in The Lancet Oncology in July 2020*), showing:

  • a 7.9 – 9.6% increase in the number of deaths due to breast cancer up to year 5 after diagnosis
  • a 15.3 – 16.6% increase for colorectal cancer
  • a 4.8 – 5.3% increase for lung cancer
  • a 5.8 – 6.0% increase for oesophageal cancer.

The total additional years of life lost across these cancers was estimated to be 59,204 – 63,229 years.

Bente Mikkelsen (2) from the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed out that COVID-19 has a profound impact on cancer patients.

  • First of all, cancer patients contracting the virus, have an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. But also their treatment is impacted by the pandemic: delays of 25-65% in multi-modality therapies and interrupted (or even abandoned) therapies in 80%.
  • Moreover, delays in diagnosis result in more advanced stages of the tumour in up to 90% of the patients.

Kathy Oliver (3) shared the results of a survey amongst caregivers and cancer patients, illustrating that caregivers and patients live in a time dominated by fear. They discovered that 61% of patients didn’t want to go to the hospital or were willing to go, but were very anxious about it. Caregivers on the other hand were worried about their loved ones contracting COVID-19.


We pledge patients to seek help

The disruption of cancer services may persist for a long period, due to possibly successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, and even in the light of a successful vaccination initiative, that will likely take a while to be fully successful.

In order to avoid substantial numbers of deaths attributable to delays in cancer care, urgent attention is required to minimise and mitigate disruption to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

In these troublesome COVID-19 times, we are reaching out to cancer patients or their relatives. We pledge patients to continue to seek professional help for their disease and provide My Cancer Navigator as our free information service for patients and physicians.


(1) Professor Mark Lawler is a board member of the European Cancer Organisation and co-Chair of the Special Network on the Impact of COVID-19. He’s Professor of Digital Health, and Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics at the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences, Queen's University Belfast.

(2) Bente Mikkelsen is the Director, Non-Communicable Diseases Division of UHC/Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases at the World Health Organisation.

(3) Kathy Oliver is Chair and founding Co-Director of the International Brain Tumour Alliance (IBTA), a global network founded in 2005 as a dynamic worldwide community for brain tumour patient organisations and others involved in the field of neuro-oncology.


* Read the full article in The Lancet Oncology here.

More intresting readings on the topic:

Our earlier blog on Covid-19 affecting cancer care here.

Our news item on remaining at your disposal here.

Find out more about how we help patients here.

Watch our webinar on drug repurposing for cancer in the covid-19 era here.

Guy Buyens, Medical Director at the Anticancer Fund
Guy Buyens, MD

Guy Buyens (MD) is Medical Director at the Anticancer Fund. His experience comes from the pharmaceutical industry (international clinical research in oncology) and biotechnology, but also from hospital management (CEO of a hospital).