As our attention focused on the ongoing global health crisis precipitated by the spread of COVID-19, Europe is sleepwalking into a new health crisis.
A new data tool created by Queen’s University Belfast in the UK and the European Cancer Organization has revealed the extent to which cancer treatment has been disrupted.
Aggregate data – initially compiled from 200 sources in 17 European countries – indicates that around 100 million screening tests were not performed while up to half of all cancer patients were affected by processing delays. In addition, up to 1 million Europeans could be living with undiagnosed cancer.
Given the nature of the virus, hospitals and medical centers across the continent have been forced to delay or cancel treatments and surgeries in order to minimize the risk of vulnerable and sick people being exposed to the disease, especially cancer patients.
The results of the pandemic on cancer care, but also on the treatment of other diseases, are not yet known. However, researchers hope the data will give a more complete picture of what the virus’s legacy will be.
“While COVID-19 has revealed significant gaps in our health systems, the overall impacts of COVID-19 on the delivery of cancer care in European countries are still unknown,” said Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast and Co-Chair. of the European Cancer Organization’s Special Network on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer.
“We have developed a user-friendly data tool that will help assess the challenges and inequalities in the delivery of cancer care that European countries experienced during the pandemic,” he added.
“The disastrous impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients and cancer services cannot be ignored. Cancer patients cannot wait and we must make sure that Covid-19 does not continue to undermine the fight against cancer ”.
These are just some of the key information collected by the Data Browser.
A two-month suspension of early breast cancer screening resulted in a 70% drop in the number of screening procedures performed in April and May 2020 compared to the same period the year before. New breast and gynecological cancer diagnoses halved in April 2020 compared to 2019.
Belgium was one of the hardest hit countries in the first wave of COVID-19. The disruption caused by the arrival of the virus to cancer services in the country was also severe, with an 81% decrease in cancer screenings and a further 44% reduction in cancer diagnoses. About 11% of cancer patients experienced delays in their chemotherapy treatment and as of August 2021, there were still 4,000 cancer diagnoses to be confirmed.
When the first wave of the pandemic struck, cancer diagnoses fell 42% in April 2020 from the previous year. According to data submitted to the research team behind the Data Navigator, there were around 93,000 undiagnosed cancer cases in 2020 alone. In terms of treatment, France faced a 60-day delay in surgery with a 200-day delay in chemotherapy.
For 35 days in March and April 2020, no invitations were sent to women for mammography exams as COVID-19 swept through Germany. At the same time, new cancer diagnoses fell by more than 27% in April 2020 compared to the previous year. During the early stages of the pandemic, 46.4% of cancer patients reported difficulty confirming dates for investigative procedures such as biopsies and surgeries as well as hospital stays.
In Ireland, the data are particularly compelling for prostate cancer. Cases detected in 2020 had fallen to 67% of levels recorded the year before, with benchmarks for treatment at prostate cancer clinics in August 2020 having dropped 26% from normal levels. While detected cases of lung and breast cancer saw only a slight drop to 95 and 98% from previous levels respectively, the number of biopsies performed fell by almost half.
In Italy, the majority of patients saw their care disrupted in one way or another, with 84% saying their treatment had changed in some way during the pandemic. Some 52.5% of lung cancer patients, for example, experienced delays in their chemotherapy treatment. Women typically waited an additional 4.4 months on average for cervical cancer screening. The number of surgeries has also fallen across the board, with the number of colon cancer operations dropping by more than a third compared to 2019.
In Poland, all forms of treatment have been impacted by the pandemic, but breast cancer services in particular have seen a reduction. For example, the number of mammography tests performed in April and May 2020 decreased by 94% compared to 2019.
Data from Romania is so far limited, but on what the Data Navigator had access to, researchers found that 77.5% of cancer patients had difficulty getting to medical services and appointments. you needed during the pandemic, while hospital admissions for cancer patients fell 61%.
Compared to the pre-pandemic period, 38% of lung cancer cases in Spain were not diagnosed in 2020. Screening for solid tumors has more than halved with 57% fewer cytologies, or screening tests , performed in 2020 compared to the previous year while tumor biopsies fell 41 percent. There was a 30-day backlog for surgeries to treat colorectal cancers in 2020.
According to data provided by Macmillian Cancer Support, nearly one million people experience treatment interruptions due to COVID-19. Breast cancer screenings have been hit particularly hard with around 986,000 appointments canceled, according to the Breast Cancer Now charity.
In April 2021, there were 4.6 million people awaiting surgery, including 300,000 having waited more than a year for surgery. The worst data arguably concerns the increase in mortality, with increases noted for all types of cancer. There has been, for example, a 9.6 percent increase in the number of deaths among diagnosed breast cancer patients over the past five years.