New Cancer Council NSW analysis shows the impacts of COVID-19 could cause a significant increase in the state’s cancer burden through disruptions to cancer prevention, early detection and patient care services.
However, lessons from the pandemic response could lead to long-term improvements in cancer outcomes, according to Cancer Council’s Director of Research, Professor Karen Canfell.
“The use of some cancer diagnostic services dropped markedly at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, while patients already diagnosed have also reported COVID-related distress,” Professor Canfell said.
“Unless people engage with the health system where necessary, and health services are prioritised throughout the pandemic response and recovery, we may see many more deaths from cancer caused by the indirect impacts of COVID-19 than by the virus itself.”
Medicare services for diagnosis of breast cancer, the state’s most common cancer, were down almost 40% at the height of lockdown in April 2020 compared with April 2019. Surgery to remove bowel polyps, a precursor to bowel cancer, the state’s second-leading cause of cancer death, was also down. Preliminary Cancer Council research also shows COVID-19 is distressing cancer patients and further disrupting services. COVID-19 also threatened to distract the public from cancer prevention messages.
“However, the challenge posed by COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to accelerate progress,” she said. “We can learn from the disruption and reduce cancer burden after the pandemic has passed – provided our research capacity can grow to adjust and urgently respond.”
“Measures needed to reduce COVID-19 impacts on cancer, such as improved targeting of cancer detection and diagnostic services, prevention and patient support programs, were key to improved cancer outcomes, even before the pandemic,” she said.
“But COVID-19 is a magnifying glass and an accelerator. Its impact may highlight where people have been falling through cracks in prevention, early detection and referrals for treatment.
Professor Canfell said Cancer Council NSW has been developing a COVID-19 and cancer research plan, focused on all cancers and cancer interventions, aimed at preventing a COVID-19-related spike in cancer deaths and converting the learnings into improved outcomes.
“Cancer Council NSW is supporting government and our community by expanding our research to assist the Australian COVID-19 response. We know COVID-19 is impacting on cancer – already the leading cause of premature death in NSW. We urgently need to know more, to deal with the COVID-19 impacts and accelerate our pathway to a cancer-free future.”
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