How the COVID-19 Legacy Could Change Cancer Care for the Better
Everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but not everyone has been impacted equally or in the same ways. We’ve known since early in the pandemic that people with comorbidities such as chronic illness, heart disease, obesity, and cancer are more vulnerable to the virus. Not only that, but these populations are also more vulnerable to societal and financial disruptions caused by the pandemic.
According to a survey by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the spring, 2020 shutdown of elective procedures delayed healthcare services for 79% of patients in active treatment for cancer, with 17% reporting a delay in their cancer therapy specifically. Even though elective procedures have since resumed, cancer patients and their families are now burdened with the difficult math of weighing the risks of delaying treatment against the risks of possible exposure to COVID-19.
Another subset of cancer patients who have been and will be negatively impacted by the pandemic are those who don’t yet know they have cancer. One study found that cancer screenings for breast and colorectal cancer dropped by 89% and 85% through March and April of 2020, respectively. Missing the window for early diagnosis and intervention can have serious consequences that alter the course of the disease.
And yet, the news is not all bad. The pandemic forced physicians, surgeons, and patient advocacy organizations to adapt how they treat and support vulnerable populations, but the upshot is that we’ve come up with creative ways to meet the challenges of delivering care during a pandemic. Many of these adaptations will likely prove to stick around and change cancer care for the better long after COVID-19 recedes from our daily lives. Consider the following areas:
Many aspects of cancer treatment cannot be performed virtually, but oncology teams have identified opportunities along the patient journey where in-person visits can be swapped for a virtual appointment, such as routine symptom check-ups. Right now, even making a handful of appointments virtual can help reduce a cancer patient’s risk of exposure. In the future, telehealth will continue to make check-ups more accessible and convenient for cancer patients.
Again, the majority of cancer screenings cannot be performed remotely. However, pre-pandemic, practitioners were not taking advantage of the few that are (such as stool samples for colorectal screening or visual inspections of abnormal moles via video call) as often as they could be. The pandemic has encouraged oncology teams to identify screenings that can be adapted to remote delivery and the patient populations that are prime candidates.
Undergoing cancer treatment is physically and emotionally grueling. Cancer patients rely on the support of family and friends in appointments, during treatments, and at home. But as hospitals and treatment centers restrict visitors, many patients are facing treatment alone. During the pandemic, physicians and care teams have had to step in and step up to provide emotional support and compassionate care to patients.
That can look like taking notes during a tough appointment, pausing more often to allow for mental processing, and making sure the patient understands any new information delivered. Many providers have also developed smartphone apps that provide easy access to resources and even allow patients to contact a nurse or advocate with questions.
Virtual Support Group
In addition to leaning on family and friends, many cancer patients also participate in cancer support groups. These groups are a safe space for cancer patients to discuss their experiences and emotions with other people who are also fighting cancer.
During the pandemic, in-person support groups could no longer safely meet, leaving cancer patients without this essential source of social support. To fill the gap, patient advocacy organizations stepped in to organize virtual support programs, such as virtual meetings or online forums. For example, Breast Cancer Now UK hosts a virtual support group for patients living with secondary breast cancer and the Cancer Support Community maintains an online community for cancer patients called MyLifeLine.
Even after the pandemic, there may be days or weeks when a cancer patient doesn’t feel up to attending an in-person meeting, and these online resources will be valuable outlets to connect with the cancer community.
The American Cancer Society’s survey found that nearly half of cancer patients experienced a loss of income that affected their ability to pay for or access care. To respond to this need, several U.S. patient advocacy organizations and biopharmaceutical companies launched financial assistance programs for cancer patients whose income was negatively impacted by COVID-19, allowing them to continue treatment.
As we look ahead to the post-pandemic future, we should reflect on how we can let go of the pre-pandemic practices that weren’t serving patients and replace them with the pandemic adaptations that have made the biggest difference in the patient experience. The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating for many, but we can make the legacy of how we responded to the challenges a positive one.
What other positive changes have resulted from adapting to COVID-19? Let us know what examples you’ve encountered or read about!