SSM Health Medical Minute – Pausing cancer treatment during COVID-19 could lead to another public health crisis

Medical Minute

ST. LOUIS – Doctors are concerned a pause in cancer treatments during the COVID-19 pandemic may cause other public health problems down the road.

More people with cancer are going undiagnosed or untreated, yet the incidences of cancer are roughly the same. Part of the reason for the drop is because many cancer services were put on hold due to the pandemic, resulting in fewer patients coming to the hospital for treatment.

Dr. Joseph Waller, a radiation oncologist with SSM Health Medical Group in St. Charles, is encouraging patients to resume cancer screenings, cancer treatments, and follow up appointments immediately.

Initially, access was interrupted as many patients had to put off care. But now, all offices are open, procedures and surgeries are back on the schedule and patients can be assured the hospitals are taking extraordinary measures to keep patients safe as they return to treatments, screenings, and follow up appointments.

“We’ve adopted telemedicine to minimize risk while treating cancer,” Dr. Waller said. “We’ve determined good algorithms, good treatment approaches to help patients. But, at this point, we’re in a good groove to safely keep patients away from coronavirus while continuing cancer care.”

Dr. Waller says most patients do choose to come in, but the option of telemedicine is an option as long as the patient has that technology.

The risk of pause or putting cancer care on hold is, “Cancer has one job and that’s (to) grow. Cancer can grow uncontrollably. The more time we give cancer to grow, the more opportunity it has to get bigger and spread.”

When cancer gets bigger and spreads, the outcomes are worse. The treatments have to become more toxic. And cancer that may have needed just one minor surgery, requires a bigger surgery. Early detection is crucial and can lead to safer and more effective treatments and better outcomes.

“Typically, days and weeks are not going to make a huge difference in treatment; but as we talk months and into a year, then that can make a real difference for patients,” Waller said.

Dr. Waller says don’t delay your treatments. Call your oncologist and make sure you are getting back on schedule for screenings and follow up appointments.

“Cancer rates are the same every year, coronavirus does not change the cancer rate, but if we put off screening and treatments, it will affect the outcomes for doctors to cure and manage cancer,” he said. “If we put off treating cancer, the concern is that we are going to be dealing with more advanced cancer.”

To learn more about cancer prevention or to find an oncologist, click here.

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