Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

As the pandemic drags on, we cannot afford delays in cancer treatment

Time is precious, especially so when you're facing a cancer diagnosis. Researcher and advocate Sevtap Savas writes that Canada needs stronger action, now, to save lives that have been put at risk because of pandemic disruptions.

Canada needs stronger action, now, to save lives at risk because of pandemic disruptions

A close-up of a patient's hand as they lay in a medical bed. A health-care worker wearing a gown and gloves attends to them.
Many surgeries and other treatments have been postponed or cancelled because of disruptions in the health-care system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Sevtap Savas, a cancer scientist and advocate living in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A family member of mine died of cancer all alone, because of pandemic restrictions at the health-care facility.

He had an important role in my life, particularly during my childhood. I cannot believe that he has gone like this.

This and other personal experiences with cancer — as well as my professional interest as a cancer scientist in St. John's — brought me a while ago into advocacy.

I am a happy member of a group consisting of concerned citizens who are advocating for cancer patients and families in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some of us are scientists; the majority are not. Most are members of the public, in different walks of life.

What glues us together is our common goal: to improve the conditions of individuals affected by cancer in our province. We get to learn about the conditions and issues that cancer-affected individuals experience, through our research, media and literature, or through our own experiences with disease.

These issues are critical as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. We simply cannot afford delays in treatment.

Cancer has touched us all

As cancer is a common disease (almost 45 per cent of the Canadian population will hear "you have cancer" in their lifetime), we have family members, friends, colleagues or community members who have been diagnosed with, or died because of, cancer.

Hence, one way or the other, we all have been touched by cancer and as such, somehow experienced its consequences. While the individual experiences can differ, the pain that cancer causes is collective.

Cancer cells, such as the pancreatic cancer cells seen above, can spread extensively if left unattended. (Leore Geller)

Because of this, we are motivated to talk and take steps on behalf of others whenever we can.

On behalf of current and future cancer patients, we are speaking out about the need for further action regarding health-care disruptions and its consequences.

We are especially concerned about surgery delays for cancer patients.

Surgical removal of tumours is an effective treatment in cancer control. In some cases (like when the tumour is very small and in its early stages), surgery may remove the tumour and free the patient.

However, if the tumour is left unattended, chances are higher that it will grow, accumulate more abnormalities, get more dangerous, and finally expand into surrounding tissues and start disrupting their functions.

More importantly, there is a chance that some tumour cells can detach themselves from the tumour and move to other parts of the body to form new tumours.

Survival chances can drop significantly

This scary ability of cancer makes it difficult to treat, and places the patient in metastatic disease stage with significantly reduced survival chances.

These features of cancer may explain why the delays in cancer surgeries are expected to negatively affect an individual's chances of successful treatment and survival.

Contributor Sevtap Savas says many families have been affected by disruptions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock)

I am not aware of the numbers here in Newfoundland and Labrador, but there are scientific reports anticipating these effects in other places.

So, while the federal government announced extra health-care funding for the provinces to address the delayed surgery issue, we call for further action.

We do not think that extra funding will be enough to fix the effects of health-care disruptions on cancer patients.

We do not think that it includes pro-active measures to help prevent further disruptions or effectively address patient needs over the long term.

These reasons are why we ask the federal and provincial governments, as well as health-care systems and authorities and other interested stakeholders, to be prepared for the next potential health-care disruption.

We can only imagine the possible emotional and mental health consequences of these restrictions on patients and families.

Our systems need to have plans to prevent these issues so that people who will need care, including cancer patients and families, will have access to timely treatment and services.

We also ask them to be diligent and to anticipate and prepare for immediate and long-term consequences of the health-care disruptions on patients.

For example, one can anticipate more people to be treated with radiotherapy or chemotherapy (because their tumour remained in the body longer due to postponed surgeries, and hence, possibly advanced), as well as more need for palliative and hospice care, and psychosocial support services.

LISTEN: Sevtap Savas and Deanne Roy explain the urgency of timely treatment to St. John's Morning Show host Ramraajh Sharvendiran

The immediate and long-term effects may also include mental health issues. For example, many patients were not able to have a support person with them during their treatment appointments.

I wonder how patients and families were affected when they were told that they had cancer but their surgery was cancelled or postponed. We can only imagine the possible emotional and mental health consequences of these restrictions on patients and families.

Based on the current estimate that 45 per cent of Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, the simple fact is that cancer does not ignore us.

So why should we ignore it?

It is in everybody's best interest to control cancer and its effects on the population.

Let's get together — governments, non-government organizations, health-care authorities, researchers, the public — and work toward making things better for the people needing health care in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Now and in the future.

Sevtap Savas, PhD., is a professor and cancer scientist in the Division of Biomedical Sciences, Memorial University, St. John's. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Sevtap Savas

Freelance contributor

Sevtap Savas is a cancer scientist and advocate living in St. John's.

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