Andrea Seale, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, reveals the impact COVID-19 has had on Canada’s healthcare system and ways it can be built back better and fairer.
On World Cancer Day on 4 February, we unite globally not just on the pressing issue of cancer but COVID-19 as well. There is much to celebrate this year compared to last. While vaccines were just beginning to roll out in Canada in February 2021, one year later 90% of Canadians aged 12 years and older and almost half of 5-to-11-year-olds have received at least one dose. Boosters are now available, providing much-needed protection against the prevalent Omicron strain. Healthcare workers continue to show up day after day, exhausted but heroic in their care.
But as this pandemic has shown us, sometimes progress feels like one step forward and two steps back. Today, Canada’s healthcare system is under enormous pressure. Rising hospitalisations have again forced the cancellation of non-urgent surgeries and medical procedures. Delays and backlogs in cancer screening and care continue across the country.
Over the course of this pandemic, we have learned of the devastating consequences of delaying cancer care by just a few weeks. A Canadian-led study published in the British Medical Journal found that just a four-week delay in cancer treatment increases the risk of death by about 10%.
This reality is deeply troubling. But there will be other long-term consequences of the pandemic on cancer, ones we know but haven’t yet seen, that are just as concerning. Increased exposure to cancer risk factors like alcohol and sedentary lifestyles fewer visits to the family doctor, missing screenings and more advanced cancer diagnoses – all harmful to health and could have serious consequences on people down the road.
It may seem difficult to focus on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 when there are such immediate fires to be put out, but we cannot afford to wait. Cancer remains the leading cause of death in this country. We have made so much progress in recent decades to understand cancer, provide people with better treatment options and save lives. We do not want to go backwards and we must close the gaps.
There are many actions government can take to address the long-term impacts of the pandemic on cancer. Most pressing is the need to address backlogs in cancer care – appointments, screenings, diagnostics and surgeries. Focus and investment also need to be made into cancer prevention. Research has shown us that 4 in 10 cancers can be prevented but we invest relatively little in prevention strategies that could save lives and alleviate pressures in our health care system.
The pandemic has also highlighted the vital role of caregivers. Family members and friends have taken on increased responsibilities and filled the gaps when the healthcare system was unable to. Recent Canadian Cancer Society surveys reveal higher levels of anxiety for caregivers. Because of the invaluable role they play to support people with cancer, every effort must be made to allow caregivers to safely attend appointments with patients during the pandemic and fully integrate them into cancer care. In the long term, better policies are needed to support caregivers and engage them in the care process.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities were underserved across the spectrum of cancer care. For instance, there are lower rates of cancer screening among First Nations, Inuit, Métis, immigrants, visible minorities, people living with low-income and rural populations. Inequities have been exacerbated during the pandemic and their needs must be prioritized as the system rebuilds and recovers.
Our government has a responsibility to not only lead us out of this pandemic but also seize this opportunity to build a future-focused healthcare system that works for all Canadians and closes gaps in care. Investing in preventative and equitable healthcare is needed. Action now will mean better outcomes in the future for cancer and many other chronic diseases.
Each of us can play a role to help maintain capacity in our healthcare system by getting vaccinated and following all public health measures. The fewer COVID-19 cases there are, the more likely it is that those with cancer will receive the uninterrupted care they need and have a better chance of surviving.
People should also watch for signs and symptoms of cancer, continue to get screening tests regularly and talk to their healthcare provider if they notice changes in their bodies. Finding cancer early is critically important.
As the pandemic enters its third year, championing the needs of people with cancer and their caregivers has never been more important. Together, we can change the future of cancer.
To take action on World Cancer Day promoting the theme of equity in health and cancer care and to ensure people with cancer aren’t forgotten during the pandemic, visit www.worldcancerday.org learn how to get involved.
Also visit a cancer organisation near you. In Canada: www.cancer.ca/WorldCancerDay.