Ontario doctors seeing more advanced cancers after screenings halted due to COVID-19

ON: Doctors seeing more advanced cancers after screenings halted due to COVID-19

The social and medical consequences of the COVID-19 lockdowns continue to be put on brutal display, this time with cancer patients. 

In mid-March, Ontario halted its routine screening programs for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers, citing COVID-19 capacity concerns.

Dr. Linda Rabeneck, vice-president of Prevention and Cancer Control for Cancer Care Ontario, was quick to try and quell the public's concerns, advising that the cancer screenings were for people without symptoms.

“We understand this may be concerning for people. It’s important to understand that our organized routine screening programs are for people who do not have any cancer symptoms." She said, going to note that anyone who was experiencing cancer symptoms could still try and book a test.

But physicians are now speaking out, warning that too many cancers were not being caught at their earliest stages, and patients are arriving in hospitals with more severe symptoms and advanced cancers. This has also lead to patients requiring more intensive surgery and longer hospital stays, and potentially seeing poorer long-term prognoses.

“I’m worried for people,” said Dr. Frances Wright, the Temerty Chair of Breast Surgery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “It’s upsetting as a cancer-care provider. Over the years we’ve made huge strides in reducing the mortality and morbidity for cancer, and this is a step backwards.”

According to the Starwhile hospitals still prioritised surgery for the most advanced cancers, many surgical programs functioned well below capacity for weeks as part of a provincial plan to clear beds and resources in preparation for a surge of COVID-19 cases.