Feature: Concerns grow over delay in cancer treatment amid coronavirus lockdown

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, November 12, 2020
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LONDON, Nov. 12 (Xinhua) -- In February, one month before Britain announced it would go into lockdown, a man who called himself Kieran, had a trans urethral resection of bladder tumour -- an operation to remove an early cancer in his bladder.

But due to the lockdown and the impact of the coronavirus on British hospitals, Kieran was unable to get his chemotherapy.

Now England has entered another lockdown, Kieran fears that he will not get the treatment he needs.

Since the first lockdown began in March, there have been widespread delays to cancer surgery and patients have missed out on potentially life saving therapies because tackling COVID-19 became the main focus of the health service.

Scientists are currently working out the scale of this. One study showed almost 2.5 million people missed out on cancer screening, referrals or treatment at the height of lockdown.

Joe O'Sullivan, a consultant clinical oncologist based at Northern Ireland Cancer Centre in Belfast and a professor of Radiation Oncology at Queen's University Belfast, explained to Xinhua how the health service throughout the first coronavirus wave tried to prioritise those most in need of treatment.

"In the curative settings are patients for whom have a high chance of surviving the cancer and getting on and living a normal life, I think we've tried to pry out, we sort of call those patients category one," O'Sullivan said.

However, those with less chance of surviving the cancer, may have been told that it was not worth the risk of being out and about for the small benefit they were getting from treatment, during the pandemic, said O'Sullivan.

With this, their treatments would have been delayed during the first lockdown.

"Whereas for the patients who are potentially curable, you say, well, the risk benefits are still there. But we're trying to cure you. So it's worth risking certain exposure to the virus," he added.


This prioritising of cancer treatments in the first wave of the coronavirus was "really about making sure we had the capacity within the health service to deal with the surge in COVID, while at the same time trying to protect our cancer population," O'Sullivan said.

"The overall cancer work took a big drop. So our routine cancer work was definitely affected...Right across the UK, we saw a major downturn in oncological activity," he said.

Due to the pandemic, less patients were attending their GP with general symptoms and people were put off coming to accident and emergency department because they were worried about the virus.

O'Sullivan noted a major downturn in diagnosis and treatment that he is concerned will have a knock-on effect further down the line with a surge in cancer patients being diagnosed at a later stage due to the virus.


Last week, a research report published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) stated a four-week delay in cancer treatment could increase chances of dying by up to 10 percent.

The study, the first of its kind and carried out by British and Canadian researchers, assessed the impact of cancer delays using data from 1.2 million patients using 34 different studies and including seven different cancers -- breast, head and neck, colon, rectum, lung, cervical and bladder.

For O'Sullivan, the results were not surprising to those in the oncology community but could be useful in bringing the attention of policy makers to focus on the cancer field.

"We've strived for years to implement earlier diagnosis because especially for fast growing cancers, days can matter. An extra delay of days can matter," he said.

O'Sullivan believes that the health service is in a much better place to deal with the virus now and therefore offer more complete services to cancer patients in the second lockdown.

"The BMJ refocuses our effort and helps us to argue our point, which is that we really desperately need to maintain the cancer service and the cancer diagnostic service," he added.

The key message for O'Sullivan from the research in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, is that there is a renewed sense of importance of clinical trials in the public eye.

"The UK has suffered badly by being dependent on the charity sector to fund cancer research...this pandemic has exposed the importance of maintaining the importance of clinical research generally and moving forward. We don't get vaccines without big clinical trials. And I hope that this will translate into some benefits in the cancer care world," he noted.

However, there are still growing concerns among cancer patients like Kieran seeking treatment in Britain as to whether there will be the capacity to continue with their appointments.

As the coronavirus cases continue to rise, it may leave doctors once again with the difficult choice to decide who they need to prioritise.

The number of people who have died with coronavirus in Britain has passed 50,000, marking the country the fifth one in the world to hit the tragic milestone, following the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.

To bring life back to normal, countries including Britain, China, Germany, Russia and the United States are racing against time to find a vaccine. Enditem

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