ORLANDO, FL — October 5, 2020 — The COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for cancer patients and survivors to receive the care they need and has led to delays in preventive screenings, diagnostic testing and treatment care. A May survey from the American Cancer Society (ACS CAN) found that 87% of cancer patients and survivors said the pandemic had affected their health care in some manner, including the struggle to get and afford health care.
These impacts have sparked an important question among Florida providers, patients and policymakers on what action is needed to address setbacks and what cancer care will look like in the near and far future given cancer patients and survivors’ vulnerability to the virus.
“Early on in the pandemic, it was a very large problem in public health as we heard that cancer patients were hesitant to go into provider’s offices for treatment,” shared Monica Buchanan, Senior Medical Science Liaison at GRAIL during ACS CAN’s Future of Cancer Care: COVID-19 forum that took place yesterday. “If they were having those concerns, then surely patients were not going in for routine screenings.”
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that the delayed screening due to COVID-19 could result in 10,000 more deaths than anticipated in the next decade -- just from breast and colorectal cancer alone.
“We have to try our best to catch up with the preventive screening delays we’ve had. This might mean increasing our hours in clinic, increasing the number of screenings we can do per day -- even opening on weekends,” shared Dr. Meera Iyengar, oncologist at Florida Cancer Specialists. “We have to make every effort – especially for those people who have high risk factors for cancer with family or personal history – to prioritize these individuals to get their tests done as soon as possible.”
Katie Zacher, Director of AdventHealth Cancer Institute echoed the concern for late stage diagnosis as a result of delayed screenings and pointed to the financial burden of cancer care matched with rising unemployment rates as the largest obstacles for cancer patients as a result of the pandemic. The panel also discussed the accelerated progression of telemedicine as a way to limit the amount of exposure for cancer patients and survivors, when possible.
“We can’t make up what we’ve lost but going forward we can make every effort. I will say it has recently been easier to get patients enrolled and authorized for clinical trials because of the access to telemedicine,” added Dr. Iyengar.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz shared her breast cancer survivor story and spoke on past and future legislative efforts by Congress to address survivorship and increase access to care.
“We have more than 25,000 people under the age of 45 that are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. We can’t just write off women who can benefit from early detection because it costs too much,” shared Rep. Wasserman Schultz, speaking to her plans to introduce legislation that encourages early screening and detection. “Survivorship is an important area that we need to start putting some infrastructure in place for -- that is official, that is funded, that is reimbursable and that we can make sure addresses the needs of survivors all over this country.”
The Congresswoman additionally mentioned her work and ACS CAN’s support of the Education Awareness Requires Learning Young (EARLY) Act that helped educate healthcare providers about the specific threats and warning signs of breast cancer in younger women and was reauthorized this week by Congress with increased funding.
The event was held virtually and sponsored by PhRMA, AdventHealth and Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute. Other special guests included: Marcie Pegg, nurse navigator at Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center; Dr. Sanjay Reddy, Orlando gastroenterologist; and Dr. Michael Ybarra, Vice President and Chief of Medical Affairs at PhRMA.