The overarching legacy of COVID-19 will be that its impact has weighed heaviest on the most vulnerable in our society. In what has been a really difficult year globally, those who need additional support and care have had a tougher time than most.
One of the most vulnerable groups has been cancer patients and their loved ones. In Ireland, 9,000 people died from cancer in 2020.
The harsh reality of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions for thousands of cancer patients was the feeling of isolation and loneliness, as they were forced to cocoon away from family members, receive their cancer diagnoses by phone, and face treatment alone, without support.
Patients and their families have suffered from stress and anxiety over the unknown consequences of COVID restrictions on their own care plans. This has continued into 2021.
On this World Cancer Day 2021, the emphasis needs to be refocused on how to fully restart screening services safely. Screening may not be a diagnostic test, but it is a vitally important component in the fight against cancer.
The importance of detecting cancer early is irrefutable, and the halting of screening services due to the pandemic has caused complications in delivering cancer care services, as well as serious backlogs in the screening systems. If we consider three screening services provided in Ireland for various cancers, the impact of COVID-19 is undeniable.
BreastCheck - Ireland’s screening service for breast cancer - has postponed its localised screening services. The service has a backlog of 156,000 women for screening at present. The number of women screened by CervicalCheck in Ireland decreased by over one third in 2020, from 210,000 in 2019 to just 139,000 in 2020.
“The importance of detecting cancer early is irrefutable, and the halting of screening services due to the pandemic has caused complications in delivering cancer care services, as well as serious backlogs in the screening systems”
Similarly, BowelScreen saw 122,724 people in 2019, and only 21,821 in the first half of 2020. Given the dramatic drop in screening numbers, we must consider a number of serious questions.
How many cancer patients have fallen through the cracks undiagnosed, or have suffered late diagnosis through avoidance of hospitals and services out of fear of COVID-19?
The Health Service Executive in Ireland has estimated that up to 2,000 cancer diagnoses may not have been made this year as a result of COVID-19 impacting cancer services and presentation of patients.
Financial investment in cancer screening services is imperative. The lasting impacts of the pandemic on the provision of cancer services will linger far beyond the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
The impact of the pandemic is only adding to existing significant challenges, both financial and operational, in the provision of cancer care. Unacceptable delays and waiting lists preceded the pandemic, and will long outlast it unless serious action is taken.
The Irish Government must commit to building a stronger, more sustainable cancer care system, one that enables the provision of timely access for those who need it and invests heavily in society’s most vulnerable members.