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Canada’s cancer rates are declining — but advocates want more support amid COVID-19

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Cancer rates continue to decline in Canada, according to a new study, but with thousands of Canadians expected to be diagnosed with the disease this year, there are calls for more investment and support in the country.

Projected data published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) on Monday showed that there will be an estimated 233,900 new cancer cases and 85,100 cancer deaths in Canada in 2022.

This represents a slight increase from last year’s estimates due to a growing and ageing population, researchers say.

Read more: New evidence suggests pandemic is having a lasting impact on cancer patients

The study was done by the Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Overall, lung cancer is expected to be the most commonly diagnosed and the leading cause of cancer deaths, accounting for one-quarter of all deaths from cancer in the country this year.

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The increased use of tobacco over the past few decades is a contributing factor, said Elizabeth Holmes, senior manager of health policy at the Canadian Cancer Society and an author of the study.

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The most common cancer diagnosis in women is projected to be breast, with about one in four cancer diagnoses and in men, prostate cancer, accounting for about one in five new cases.

While there have been advancements in treatments in recent years, more needs to be done to reduce the number of cancer cases and deaths, said Holmes.

“We’re really calling for that continued investment and support in those innovative research studies to improve treatment and early detection … to increase the uptake and access of existing screening programs, as well as implement new ones,” she told Global News.

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Holmes said the government also needs to increase access to support programs and come up with a comprehensive and co-ordinated action plan to address the impact of cancer in Canada.

COVID-19 pandemic

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and it is estimated that about two in five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in cancer screenings, procedures and treatments across the country.

Read more: ‘I’m a goner’: How COVID-19 compounds the challenges for Canada’s cancer patients

There are concerns this could lead to many cancer cases going undiagnosed or detected at an advanced stage.

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“I definitely have questions about the undiagnosed cases from the last two years and the impact that’s going to have on the lives of patients — young and old — and specifically those who have or will ultimately receive a diagnosis,” said Geoff Eaton, a two-time cancer survivor and executive director of Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC).

“A lot of cancers are much more difficult to manage the later they’re detected,” he told Global News.

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A study published in the International Journal of Cancer in November 2021 suggested pandemic associated delays in Canada could result in about 20,000 additional deaths from cancer over the next decade.

Another more recent study published in the CMAJ in March showed that cancer surgery delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic could affect long-term survival for many patients.

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Read more: Cancer surgery delays caused by COVID-19 could lead to shorter life spans: study

Apart from the physical toll, Eaton says two years of isolation and lockdowns have also compounded challenges for cancer patients in Canada.

“COVID stopped a lot of things in our life, but certainly did not stop cancer or its complications or the need for survivors to continue to figure out how they keep living and moving forward in their life.”

In a July 2021 survey published in the Lancet medical journal, 74 per cent of cancer patients in Canada reported that the delays had a major impact on their mental and emotional well-being.

Support for cancer patients

Eaton started Young Adult Cancer Canada in 2000 after his first diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. He has had two bone marrow transplants in his 20s, but hasn’t been in active treatment for over 20 years now.

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His non-profit organization is providing support services to a community of some 5,000 teenagers, as well as others in their 20s and 30s.

Read more: Montreal teen shares cancer journey to raise awareness, funding for research

He said more resources need to be allocated for longer-term support and recovery for cancer patients so they can transition back out of treatment into the next phase of their lives.

“The challenge that I see in our system right now is we have focused so heavily on screening and treatment phases and we have virtually forgotten about the rest of the patient’s life,” Eaton said.

“The advances [in treatment and screening] are welcomed and important, but I think an adjustment of our priorities is critical.”
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Cancer rates and new cases are projected to be higher for men than women, according to the CMAJ study.

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Holmes encouraged Canadians to adopt a healthy lifestyle by being physically active, eating well, limiting alcohol, refraining from smoking and practising sun safety.

For early detection, she advised getting any change in their body checked by a health-care provider and staying up to date with regular screenings.

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