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One in seven cancer patients skipped ‘potentially life-saving’ surgery during COVID-19 lockdowns

One in seven cancer patients skipped ‘potentially life-saving’ surgery during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, study finds

  • Many cancer patients, one out of every seven, skipped potentially life-saving surgeries during strict Covid lockdowns, a new study finds
  • Every single patient that elected to not receive the scheduled operations cited fear of the virus as the main reason 
  • When Covid restrictions were lighter, only one out of every 166 patients decided to skip their procedures 
  • Pandemic disrupted ongoing medical treatment for many around the world, potentially leading to more deaths than from the virus itself

COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns caused cancer patients to miss potentially life-saving surgeries, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK gathered data on 20,000 patients being treated at 466 hospitals in 61 countries.

They found that around one in every seven patients who had a crucial surgery scheduled while their locale was in a full lockdown skipped the procedure.

Every single one of these patients cited Covid as the reason why the chose not to have their scheduled operation. 

Those who had surgeries  scheduled during times where pandemic restrictions were much lighter were much less likely to skip them – with just one out of every 166 people choosing to do so. 

One out of every seven cancer patients with a critical surgery scheduled during Covid lockdowns decided to skip the surgery, with all of them citing fear of the virus as reason (file photo)

Around 15 percent of patients did not receive scheduled surgery during full scale lockdowns, but only 0.6 percent opted to skip surgery when there were lighter restrictions.

Patients who waited more than six weeks for a procedure were most likely to skip it, and people who were frail or with a more advanced diagnosis were more likely to miss the scheduled surgery as well. 

‘Our research reveals the collateral impact of lockdowns on patients awaiting cancer surgery during the pandemic,’ said co-lead author James Glasbey, research fellow at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham, in a statement.

‘Whilst lockdowns are critical to saving lives and reducing the spread of the virus, ensuring capacity for safe elective cancer surgery should be part of every country’s plan to ensure continued health across the whole population.’

Glasbey agrees with health officials who asked for lockdowns, but thinks more should have been done to avoid ongoing disruption of medical treatment during the pandemic.

‘In order to prevent further harm during future lockdowns, we must make the systems around elective surgery more resilient – protecting elective surgery beds and operating theatre space, and properly resourcing “surge” capacity for periods of high demand on the hospital, whether that is COVID, the flu or other public health emergencies,’ he said.

The researchers, who published their findings on Tuesday in Lancet Oncology,  also found that some lower income countries such as India and Pakistan had higher rates of surgery cancellation than higher income nations like Italy and France.

While skipping surgeries had partly to do with Covid fears, the team also believes a lack of hospital capacity and medical resources in the nations may have played a role as well.

‘The most vulnerable patients to lockdown effects were those in lower income countries, where capacity issues that were present before the pandemic were worsened during lockdown restrictions,’ said Dr Aneel Bhangu, a lecturer and consultant surgeon at the school, said in a statement.

Patients in these environment were at highest risk of cancellation, despite being younger and having fewer co-morbidities.’ 

Previous studies have also found that lockdowns, while potentially necessary, did hurt cancer patients.

A Japanese study from last month found that the rate of cancer diagnoses dropped during the pandemic, though the cases that were found are more severe.

This likely means the decrease in diagnoses is not because less people are developing cancer, but more because people are skipping routine screenings.   

The longer it takes for someone to discover they have cancer – and start treatment as a result – the lower chance they have of survival.

Missing routine screenings due to fear of Covid could have caused many additional deaths from cancer that could have been prevented with regular screenings. 

Lockdowns may have hurt everyone currently undergoing medical treatment, not just cancer patients.

Some experts believe the true death toll of the pandemic in 2020 may be more than double official numbers – not just because of undercounting of Covid figures, but because disruptions of treatment and limited medical resources.