The impact of COVID-19 in Canada has been felt in peaks and valleys. As many countries experienced, we saw periods when cases were controlled for weeks on end and times when cases rose rapidly. Provinces and territories in Canada responded in varying ways, including lockdowns, restrictions to business operations, limiting social circles and closing borders. Some provinces were hit harder than others and many health units across the country saw an influx in COVID-related hospitalisation that forced unrelated surgeries and screening programmes, including those for cancer, to be cancelled.
The impact of cancelled cancer surgeries, appointments and screening will be felt for years to come. From March to June we saw a 20% reduction in cancer surgeries compared to 2019. In a July 2020 survey conducted by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), almost half (47%) of respondents reported having their cancer care disrupted or postponed as a result of the pandemic. According to a study from the British Medical Journal, just a four-week cancer treatment delay increases the risk of death by up to 10%.
As our healthcare system grapples with the challenges of COVID-19, decisions have been – and continue to be – made that could result in the difference between life and death. The needs of cancer patients must be reflected in government action and the services offered by health charities like CCS must continue so Canadians aren’t facing this burden alone.
Like all health charities in Canada, CCS felt the consequences of COVID-19. During some of our busiest fundraising months, we had to cancel hundreds of in-person events, leading to a drop in donations of about 40% or $70 million since the beginning of the pandemic. As a charity, we rely on donations. With fewer fundraising opportunities and donations coming in, we were forced to make incredibly difficult choices and scale back our staff. In our 80-year history, CCS has never faced a greater financial challenge.
Nevertheless, we quickly found ways to adapt to the realities of COVID-19. Our primary focus was to continue funding cancer research and continue providing support for Canadians affected by cancer, which meant finding new and creative solutions. Camp Goodtimes – CCS’s summer camp for children with cancer and their families – went virtual. We replaced the camp adventures with virtual campfires and fort building on Zoom because we knew how important connection can be, especially during these times when isolation is a public health concern. Instead of completely closing our “wig banks” – a service that provides free wigs for people with cancer who lose their hair because of their treatment – we moved online and developed a nationwide distribution system and curbside pickup or delivery for people all over Canada’s vast geography. Now, we are able to offer our wig service to even more Canadians than before.
Our network of dedicated volunteers inspired us – knowing that cancer doesn’t stop during a pandemic and so neither can fundraising. Volunteers organised virtual fundraising events across the country and pulled off truly incredible fundraising results in completely new ways, including live virtual concerts, trivia nights and reading challenges. All our signature fundraising events went virtual and by finding new ways to engage donors we exceeded many of our adjusted fundraising targets. We funded the world’s first clinical trial to test a treatment that has the potential to boost the immune system in people with cancer, which could help reduce the threat of COVID-19. All the while, we continued to offer support through our toll-free helpline and online community so we can be there for Canadians needing help during these especially challenging times.
The pandemic means that Canadians need our help more than ever. Our focus must be to continue providing support, funding research and advocating for change. We can all do our part to help; as individuals, we can follow public health measures to control the spread of COVID-19 and contact our doctor if there are changes to our health; as a society, we can be there to support one another; and as a nation, our governments can do everything in their power to ensure that cancer care is prioritised and not disrupted.
As an organisation, the Canadian Cancer Society was able to use ingenuity, resiliency and a nimbleness to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. We know brighter days lie ahead and that we will come out of the pandemic stronger with some changes that are helping us better connect with more Canadians affected by cancer from coast to coast. Our work does not stop; there are still many challenges that lie ahead for our healthcare system and we are dedicated to providing the supports that Canadians need now and in the years ahead.