Coronavirus: what are the implications for cancer patients?

Grandstand. With the coronavirus, we are living much more than a health crisis. It is also a test of resistance for our health systems, even for the countries considered as “best ranked” by the various evaluation institutes or bodies. The indicators used, such as economic performance criteria, minimization of the cost of production, satisfaction of a standard of equity specific to each company, now appear to be poorly calibrated and insufficient in the face of such an epidemic crisis. As this pandemic progresses, we understand less the absence of indicators relating to the conditions of practice of those who provide care and to their dedication.

The fight against Covid-19 goes beyond a fight against the epidemic. It is also a struggle to maintain care for other chronic or acute pathologies that have not disappeared during this epidemic period. No one can also conceal the social and economic consequences, possible obstacles to access to care for all. An estimated 3.5 million French people are affected by cancer in France and 382,000 new annual cases in 2018, i.e. around 1,450 new cases diagnosed every day of the week. The Minister of Solidarity and Health regretted that cancer screenings were no longer carried out, “Calling the French” to return to their doctor for these diagnostic procedures. This announcement is important but may not be sufficient or essential to avoid the potential serious consequences of delayed or unannounced diagnoses, treatments degraded by necessity, renunciations of care or the interruption of inclusions in therapeutic trials.

A national strategy to be implemented

It would now be necessary to quickly implement a coordinated national strategy with a coherent territorial variation adapted to the local epidemiological and health situation, even when efforts are made to limit the spread of the virus by containment and barrier measures. The paradox of our society overdone with inflationary regulations and saturated with organizations of all kinds, but which ultimately finds it very difficult to organize or impose cooperation in this unprecedented context. Yet we have entered a period when things that once seemed impossible are inevitable.

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Since the epidemic crisis and the post-containment period are expected to last several months, the fear of the medical community with which I associate and of the nursing staff of my establishment specialized in the fight against cancer is that we are faced with a first “wave” of more serious cases than before linked to deferred care. After this period of crisis, the duration of which no one can seriously determine, health facilities that have been under tension for many years may find it difficult, especially if they have been considered as “Covid-19 hospitals”, to be absorbed into reasonable times the care of patients awaiting treatment as well as the flow of patients with newly diagnosed cancer reintegrating a course of care. It will most certainly take months to restore optimal organization. In addition, even if the epidemic crisis ends, the deterioration of the economy could accentuate inequalities with all its consequences on access to healthcare, particularly in the case of cancer.

Towards an increase in mortality?

For breast cancer, the most frequent cancer in women, whose annual number of new cases is estimated at 54,000 in France, the surgical management of patients with favorable prognostic criteria has been postponed, in accordance with the opinion of the High Council of Public Health available from mid-March and on the recommendations of learned societies. Even if these are remarkable recommendations which are unanimous during this period, it should not be forgotten that these are expert agreements for degraded care which should not last, at the risk a loss of luck for patients with even cancer said to have a good prognosis. Other examples could be taken, such as pancreatic cancer, the incidence of which has more than doubled over the past twenty years and whose unfavorable prognosis means that any delay in diagnosis by limiting access to radiology services, that any delay in surgical management due to the absence of an available operating theater or access to post-operative resuscitation could inevitably lead to an increase in mortality.

The Lombardy region of Italy, very affected as everyone knows by the pandemic, has managed to organize itself to maintain adequate care for cancer patients during this epidemic plague. Several platforms (HUB centers) have been set up, dedicated solely to the treatment of cancer patients (including the European Institute of Oncology and the National Cancer Institute in Milan). They receive newly diagnosed surgical candidates from area hospitals more dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients. These Covid-19-free cancer hospitals can continue to care for cancer patients even if they are small cancers with good prognosis.

This attention-grabbing pandemic should not make us lose our minds. After having wagered on economic performance for years, we suddenly moved on to the almost exclusive total fight against the Covid-19. It must be remembered that there is a middle way in everything that avoids extreme attitudes while preserving the future.


Emmanuel Barranger Surgeon oncologist, director general of the Center for the fight against cancer Antoine Lacassagne, Nice (Fédération Unicancer)

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