After a few disruptions in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nova Scotia Health reports that its cancer care program is back on track, with minimal impact to patients in 2020.
Last spring, some services were temporarily suspended, including breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening programs, but those resumed between April and October.
Last year, 6,721 cancer patients were treated in the province, compared to 6,820 in 2019 — a difference of 99 patients and a “normal variation” according to the health-care provider. The numbers cover chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants, and some patients may have received more than one treatment.
“Compared to the year before, there’s about 15 per cent less patients put on the waiting list,” said Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst, senior director of Nova Scotia’s cancer care program.
“By today we have completely caught up and experience normal volumes, but what this tells us is there are probably some patients who weren’t able to access primary care, who weren’t able to receive their staging tests or have their biopsies done, that make it now through the system.”
In 2020, 3,382 cancer surgeries took place in the province between April and December. That’s 593 less than in the same timeframe in 2019.
Hollenhorst said in the early stages of the pandemic, doctors observed an increase in cancelled appointments, particularly from patients who reside outside of Halifax. It’s possible, he added, that Nova Scotia will see an increase in new cancer patients entering the system in 2021, as some residents made not have seen their primary care providers in 2020.
“Anecdotally, patients were very worried about leaving their hometown and coming to the care centre,” he told Global News.
“There were a lot of cancellations of appointments for new visits and follow up appointments, but also intervention’s and surgical appointments because of fear of being infected by the COVID-19 virus.”
The doctor encouraged anyone with symptoms that could be related to cancer to contact their health-care provider for an assessment and referral, emphasizing that “stringent” measures are in place to keep all patients safe in the hospitals.
It’s a message echoed by the Canadian Cancer Society, which is concerned that 2021 and 2022 could bring a “huge surge” in cancer patients who were unable to access overwhelmed health-care systems during the height of the first and second waves.
“What we’ve seen and what we’re expecting right across Canada is a huge surge in cancer cases over the next year, and years to come related to cancers that are diagnosed at a very late stage or at a stage where they’re much less easy to treat,” said Kelly Cull, director of advocacy for the society.
“That’s going to have a massive impact on health-care systems.”
The Canadian Cancer Society is currently conducting its third nationwide survey, trying to get a sense of how cancer patients have been coping during the pandemic and what challenges they, and their caregivers, have faced.
Cull said in 2020, “close to 50 per cent” of cancer patients across the country reported appointment cancellations or delays — numbers that are “steadily declining.”
The public can support efforts to combat cancer during the pandemic, she added, by following public health directives related to COVID-19. That will help ease the burden on health-care systems in every province, she said.
Pictou West MLA Karla MacFarlane, health critic for the Nova Scotia PCs, encouraged anyone who has not received a cancer screening kit they were expecting in the mail to call and request one from Nova Scotia Health. That number is 1-866-599-2267.
Last year, the province put the public distribution of colon cancer screening kits on hold between March and October, as it dealt with a backlog of about 1,600 colonoscopy patients. MacFarlane said she’s received many calls from constituents, family and friends who were due to receive those kits, and still have not.
“We have to take a little bit of responsibility on ourselves,” she said. “There is a gap — yes, they may be back sending them out, but obviously there is a missing link somewhere because some people are not receiving them.”