'More deserted than a church': questions linger about cancer care backlog
HALIFAX -- Maritime health officials admit the COVID-19 pandemic did have a significant impact on cancer screening and surgeries, but say the backlog is clearing up.
Advocates, though, aren't so sure.
Cancer patient Anamarija Wagner, who shared her story with CTV News Tuesday after she was told a scheduled medical appointment needed to be rebooked, says a lack of doctors and specialists is a big part of the problem.
"So, when you go to your family physician, who's also already overworked, and you tell them what the problem is, usually, they'll say well, let's wait and see," said Wagner. "And, I'm sorry - a lot of us don't have the wait-and-see time. A lot of us aren't on very good time-lines."
"Unfortunately, Anamarija is very much not alone in this," said Conrad Eder, policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.
In an online survey of hundreds of cancer patients, caregivers and others late last year, the group found more than half had an appointments cancelled, postponed or re-scheduled, and it took an average of 34 days to schedule a new one.
Almost 60 per cent said they were worried about receiving adequate healthcare even after COVID-19 was done.
The impact on mental health is harder to measure.
"We know this is not only damaging their family relationships, it's interfering with exercise routines -- even their eating habits have been impacted by this constant anxiety in not being able to be seen by a doctor in a prompt fashion," said Eder.
Health officials in Nova Scotia acknowledge a COVID1- impact, but insist much of it has been dealt with.
"COVID-19 did have an impact, but cancer patients in Nova Scotia continued to receive cancer services throughout the three waves of the pandemic, with a focus on using telephone and video appointments when appropriate," said Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst, senior medical director of Nova Scotia Health Cancer Care Program in an emailed statement to CTV News. "Urgent, emergency, and time-sensitive cancer surgeries and procedures also continued during all three waves of COVID-19. There were some delays for patients needing some cancer-related surgeries, but patients were prioritized based on clinical need. Cancer screening programs and access to diagnostic imaging were also reduced during the first wave to free up resources to support the COVID-19 response. We learned valuable lessons during the first wave and were able to lessen these disruptions in waves two and three."
Hollenhorst states that as of June 30, more than 80 per cent of patients with a known or suspected cancer, who had their surgery cancelled since April 23 for any reason (pandemic related service reduction, patient decline surgery etc.), "have had their surgery completed, have a new surgery date, or have been removed from our surgical wait lists for various reasons."
In New Brunswick, they are still sorting through the data.
"We don’t have the data yet to know whether there will be an increase in cancer cases and/or mortality in Nova Scotia because of the pandemic. However, considering the service reductions that were necessary, it is likely patients are still making their way through the system."
New Brunswick's Health Minister Dorothy Shephard did provide some data, telling CTV News screenings for cervical cancer dropped 31 per cent and colon cancer 44-per-cent from May to December of 2020, but colonoscopies fared better.
"We were seeing 82 per cent of those positive cases within 60 days. So, I think that we have managed, and certainly going into 2021 to get those tests back up to normal," said Shephard.
"So, for me, my perspective says we've done a pretty good job managing our cancer screening programs."
None of it sits very well with Wagner, who still isn't convinced screening programs needed to so drastically reduced.
"Many times I was in the hospital for chemo or radiation and the hallways and most departments were totally deserted," she said via email Wednesday.
"More deserted than a church and that says a lot.
"There is no reason why there couldn’t have been cancer screenings still taking place."