From March to June 2020, the months that cover the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 21% fewer new cancer patients in consultation in Spain compared to the same period in 2019, a percentage that increases if one considers only April and May: 32% less. The number of patients with this type of ailment treated in day hospitals fell by 14%, and those receiving chemotherapy by 9.5%. These are data that the Spanish Association Against Cancer makes public this Monday, in a multi-hospital study with the Spanish societies of Pathological Anatomy (SEAP), Oncology Nursing (SEEO), Hematology and Hemotherapy (SEHH), Medical Oncology (SEOM) and Radiation Oncology (SEOR).
Experts have been warning all year that a pandemic does not only involve the disease that causes it, in this case COVID-19. It is also everything that drags like a butterfly effect: collapsed health centers and hospitals, postponed consultations, worsening pathologies. Ramón Reyes, president of the AECC, points out that this is the reason for the study: “In order to calibrate the impact suffered by patients in the hospital setting, it was necessary to have a very clear idea of what is needed for the following waves to cancer patients are not relegated and to anticipate the care needs that will have generated the delays in diagnoses in the first wave.
The conclusion of the study, beyond the figures, is that cancer cases were not reduced during the first wave of the pandemic, but rather that the drop in diagnoses was due in most cases “to the suspension of activity care “and also influenced” the fear on the part of patients to go to their hospital centers for fear of coronavirus infection. Analysts were already warning that the accumulation of excess deaths in 2020 could be due both to direct COVID-19 cases diagnosed or not, and to some extent to other pathologies that have not been adequately treated due to the health crisis, especially heart disease. The consequences of late cancer diagnoses can still be felt throughout 2021.
The study also concludes that during the spring there were fewer face-to-face consultations and new patients, but more telephone attention: the number of follow-up consultations made by phone has increased almost by 3 and there is a decrease of around a third in face-to-face consultations compared to 2019. Also the number of patients treated with radiotherapy decreased by 5% from March to May. The president of the SEOR, Dr. Jorge Contreras, recalls that “more than 60% of cancer cases currently require treatment with Radiotherapy and that it also plays a prominent role in more than 40% of the cures of cancer patients.” There were also 57% fewer cytologies – which leads to 30% fewer cancer diagnoses with this type of test – and 41% biopsies. In June, cancer-related face-to-face consultations returned to similar numbers to 2019, according to the AECC review.
The documents will be presented to the Ministry of Health so that those responsible and the regional authorities “implement measures to avoid the suspension of diagnostic, therapeutic and assistance activities in general in the following waves of the pandemic”, and they are put into action willingness to seek solutions with them. Minister Salvador Illa already met this December with Ramón Reyes to comment on this and other issues related to the prevention and control of cancer in Spain. Those responsible also call on patients “not to delay consultations or abandon treatments for fear of coronavirus infection” because all the services analyzed had put control measures that guarantee their safety.