Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer care worldwide, including in Asia, has been disrupted. Many patients have paused their cancer treatment, routine cancer appointments have been cancelled, and people with possible cancer symptoms have been too afraid to seek help. According to AstraZeneca, a research-based BioPharmaceutical company headquartered in England, this has resulted in a 40% drop in people who would typically be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. In the Philippines, 74% of the oncologists have had patients deteriorate or die because they aren’t able to access urgent care in the hospital.
This was revealed and discussed at a recent press conference by AstraZeneca, as part of their New Normal, Same Cancer campaign to encourage both cancer patients and people with possible signs of cancer to prioritize their health and consult their doctors amid the pandemic.
This is because “cancer does not wait,” said Dr. Pei-Chieh Fong, Medical Director of AstraZeneca Taiwan. “Early diagnosis and intervention greatly improve the chances of survival,” she added.
The state of cancer in Asia
According to Professor Chng Wee Joo, Director of National University Cancer Institute Singapore, there were 8.2 million new cancer cases and 5.2 million cancer deaths in Asia in 2018. He also added that the most common cancers worldwide are lung, breast, and colorectal cancer, but in Asia, there are some more distinct cancers, including stomach cancers and liver cancer arising from hepatitis.
He said that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the patient’s journey. There are also discontinued cancer screening services, as well as delays in appointments, cancer diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.
He acknowledged, “The immune system in cancer patients are somewhat compromised compared to a normal individual so there [are] clearly concerns that cancer patients may be more prone to getting COVID-19 infections. And if they get the COVID-19 infections, they will have a more severe COVID-19 disease and therefore potentially [will produce a] worse outcome.”
“But we also know that for cancer patients, access to care is critical. If you have [cancer in the early stages], this is the best time for treatment, which can be curative,” he said.
As a solution, he talked about finding the right balance, weighing the risks of a compromised immune system with solutions like telemedicine and medicine home delivery. He also cited solutions to ensure the continuity of care in hospitals. These include infection control measures, triaging of cases, and new treatment and surgery protocols.
Behavior of the population, authorities and health institutions may have changed due to COVID-19 policies, but Joo stressed that it’s importance for cancer patients to get timely and consistent treatment from hospitals.
Fong also briefly called on healthcare leaders and policymakers to ensure that low-COVID risk pathways are available for patients so that they could safely attend their screenings and consultations.
As one of the speakers mentioned in the press conference, we shouldn’t be afraid of COVID-19, we should be afraid of cancer.