by Mona Jhaveri - December 30, 2021

As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, cancer patients found themselves in a difficult position. The restriction introduced due to the pandemic meant that cancer patients couldn’t receive treatment as efficiently or as early as needed. Worldwide, health institutions largely delayed or suspended cancer screening, tests, and most forms of treatment in an effort to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Even when these restrictions loosened and cancer treatment resumed later in the pandemic, the patient’s risk of COVID-19 infection was still high. Patients had to decide whether they should continue with cancer treatment and risk getting a COVID-19 infection or pause the treatment and risk a poor outcome of their condition.

Everywhere, healthcare providers did what they could to make this process as painless and seamless as possible for all parties involved. This blog post represents an overview of the support cancer patients received and continue receiving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How COVID-19 Affects Cancer Patients

Even though COVID-19 altered the lives of millions of people worldwide, cancer patients have faced a very specific set of challenges.

  • Increased risk of infection

Cancer patients have a higher risk of becoming infected by the novel coronavirus. Their immune systems may be weakened by cancer itself or by the treatment they receive, making them more susceptible to infection.

  • Higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19

Similarly, research confirms that people with cancer have a higher chance of developing severe illness if they are infected with COVID-19.

Patients with blood cancers are potentially more at risk than those with solid tumors. Blood cancer usually causes depleted or abnormal levels of white blood cells, which are critical for fighting infection.

Additionally, even if survivors are cancer-free and not in active treatment, they could also have a higher risk of severe COVID-19.

  • Delayed or canceled anticancer treatments

Due to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID infection, many people were unable to start or continue treatment for their cancer. Non-emergency surgeries were postponed, and chemo and radiation therapy were entirely stopped in some cases.

This postponement brought a fresh wave of fear and anxiety to cancer patients who were already in a vulnerable position emotionally. After all, treatment delay could lead to a poorer health outcome for some cancer patients.

Oncology Reorganization

Reduced Services

At the very start of the pandemic, it was evident that no healthcare system was prepared for the onslaught of COVID-19.

Healthcare systems worldwide had to shift their approach to prioritize patient care and fight against the COVID-19 disease. Infection control concerns were quickly becoming a top priority for hospitals everywhere.

In such chaotic conditions, oncology centers and departments had to adjust or reduce their services, no longer able to provide the same level of cancer care as before the pandemic.

Decisions to reduce cancer services were made for the primary reason of protecting the patients and staff from exposure to COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, much was still unknown about the COVID disease. Guidelines were made and followed based on incoming information and experience from frontline oncologists.

Additional factors that prevented cancer centers from operating at full capacity at the start of the pandemic included shortage of PPE, staff, and lack of access to proper medication.

Some oncologists closed their clinics entirely, while others reduced appointments to only urgent cases and emergencies; still, other centers kept some scheduled patient care activities in place. For a brief period of time, it was uncertain when cancer patients would be able to resume their treatments.

However, as time passed and more was discovered and understood about COVID-19, most clinics began reopening for scheduled visits.

Treatment Modification

Together with reduced services to limit exposure to COVID-19, there is some evidence that the pandemic has impacted the oncologists’ decision-making processes as well.

One study that included oncologists from 28 countries demonstrated that they were hesitant to use certain treatment options amid the pandemic, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors and cytotoxic chemotherapy. Another study observed 56.4% of study participants in New York City’s cancer centers had their treatment modified due to COVID-19.

The main reason for this modification was to avoid treatment-related adverse events that could make patients more vulnerable to infection.

Even though later research revealed that giving immune checkpoint inhibitors to cancer patients who were COVID-positive was safe, it is highly likely that the oncological community reacted with caution and reduced the use of these drugs at the start of the pandemic.

Telemedicine

In light of all the limitations and restrictions that hindered care for cancer patients in the pandemic, telemedicine, telehealth, or digital health became a logical step forward in cancer treatment.

Communicating via phone or video calls is a relatively easy and efficient way to monitor cancer patients. Virtual care allows health professionals to counsel their patients, prescribe and manage their medication, manage their long-term treatment, as well as perform a whole host of other activities for promoting their patients’ wellness (diet management, health education, health risk assessment, mental health guidance, and more).

The key benefit of telemedicine is that it allows for better monitoring of cancer patients in conditions that are not ideal (e.g., far-away locations, lack of access to proper healthcare facilities, and pandemic conditions).

Studies show that 80% of cancer patients would prefer using telemedicine in the future as well. This is mainly due to the benefits it has compared to traditional care, such as reduced travel time and expenses, increased convenience for patients (especially those with mobility issues), shorter wait times for appointments, etc.

Lessons Learned

Even though the release of COVID-19 vaccines has significantly helped reduce the impact of this pandemic, healthcare professionals can still learn from their experiences in managing cancer patients during this crisis.

To avoid the disorganization and confusion that occurred at the start of the pandemic, cancer centers should seek to develop better plans that will improve their responsiveness in future crises. Healthcare staff management, pharmacy management, and supply management should be improved, as well as crisis communication plans.

The previous lessons are particularly relevant to cancer centers that serve rural communities or patients living in remote areas. These facilities will have a harder time responding to any future pandemics due to the lack of resources and healthcare professionals at their disposal.

This is why it’s important to turn to new technologies and strategies that can help them provide adequate care to cancer patients, regardless of location.

Conclusion

Cancer patient support during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult task for both patients and healthcare professionals. The onslaught of COVID-19 patients at the start of 2020 required fast thinking, quick decision-making, and creative problem-solving.

Unfortunately, despite the cancer community’s best efforts, cancer patients still experience many challenges, such as reduced access to cancer treatment, treatment modifications, and increased fear and anxiety. We still don’t know the full extent of the impact that COVID-19 had on cancer patients, but it’s safe to say that this pandemic has changed the way we look at treating cancers.

The lessons learned from this crisis are now being used to improve care standards in cancer centers worldwide. Health providers can secure their patients with higher-quality care during future emergencies by providing better communication tools, telemedicine support, disaster preparedness plans, etc.

You can also contribute to the fight against cancer. Check out our list of active campaigns developing biotech and medtech solutions for addressing gaps in treatment. Donate now to help improve cancer treatment for all patients.

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