How Are We Fighting Cancer During The Pandemic?


The COVID-19 pandemic has upended almost every aspect of our lives, but it’s particularly difficult on non-pandemic related healthcare, including cancer screening, diagnosis and care.

Particularly in the first months of the pandemic through the spring and early summer of 2020, many hospitals and clinics were either closed or severely limited except for COVID or emergency care. As a result, and as governments around the world grappled to respond to the pandemic, several cancer screening programs were put on hold and other medical appointments relating to cancer care were cancelled or postponed.

Many argue, however, that cancer should be treated as an emergency, so diagnosis and treatment occur as quickly as possible. “We need to shorten markedly the time from initial cancer symptoms until therapy is started,” said Dr. David Stewart, a medical oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital whose primary clinical focus is the treatment of advanced lung cancer.

“For many cancers, delays mean the cancer may spread and become incurable when it might otherwise have been curable.”

That the pandemic caused even more delays than were already occurring before is clear from different surveys. In July 2020, the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network reported that more than half (54%) of Canadian cancer patients, caregivers and those awaiting confirmation of a cancer diagnosis they surveyed across Canada had had appointments, tests and treatment postponed and cancelled1. This came with an emotional toll. Three quarters (74%) of respondents said the delays in appointments and treatments had had a major impact on their mental and emotional health2.

Another report by Colorectal Cancer Canada had similar findings. They surveyed patients with colorectal cancer and caregivers in May 2020 and found 45% had had delayed or cancelled appointments which contributed to almost two-thirds (63%) having higher stress levels3.

One patient described the pandemic isolation as “extremely traumatic” because “there was no one to support the mental health piece of the experience and/or to recognize the strain it adds to the situation.” Another noted the distress of no longer being able to have their husband present with them during long chemotherapy sessions in the hospital because of the ban on visitors4.

There have been some positives, however. The Colorectal Cancer Canada survey noted that phone appointments save a lot of travel and waiting time for patients and respondents also appreciated the kindness and friendliness of many healthcare workers5.

While COVID-19 is clearly a major public health issue, Dr. Stewart pointed out that we should put it into perspective against the ongoing toll of cancer in Canada. “In the first eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic (March to October 2020), about 10,000 Canadians died from the disease6,” he said. “That’s a terrible toll, but in those same eight months more than 55,000 Canadians died from cancer7. We can’t let the need to treat one disease prevent or delay the treatment of another.”

In fact, Dr. Stewart believes some of the lessons from the pandemic should be applied to cancer care. “We should give cancer the same type of priority as COVID-19 in our health spending and public health efforts,” he said. “Let’s embrace the amazing new treatments that are becoming available and unequivocally prolong life expectancy, alleviate suffering and improve quality of life. Thousands of Canadian life-years are lost while we await approval and funding for evidence-based, effective new therapies that are already the standard of care in the U.S.”

He noted that Health Canada has made exemptions to its policies and processes so COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines would be made available to Canadians faster than normal8. “If they can acknowledge they need to work faster for COVID-19 therapies, why can’t they do likewise for cancer treatments?” he asked.

He recognizes that this will take commitment and investment, but he’s confident the fight against cancer can and should be stepped up considerably.

“If we have learned one thing from COVID-19, it is that we can do great and dramatic things if we really want to. What an amazing legacy we would build from the misery of COVID-19 if it shows us the way to work together to defeat cancer, too.”

1 Canadian Cancer Survivor Network, Cancer patients face double jeopardy with COVID-19, press release, July 14, 2020, 

2 Ibid.

3 Colorectal Cancer Canada, Colorectal Cancer and COVID-19 Survey, May 2020,

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Government of Canada, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Epidemiology update, (9,664 deaths as of Oct. 14, 2020)

7 Canadian Cancer Society, Cancer statistics at a glance, Incidence and Mortality, Expected cancer deaths in 2020 = 83,300. Eight months = 55,533.

8 Government of Canada, Health Canada’s regulatory response to COVID-19: Access to health products,

No content of this article is intended as medical advice. If you have questions about your health, consult a healthcare professional.

Developed by C.A.R.P./Zoomer with financial support from Merck Canada Inc.