About 730 fewer surgeries have been done for breast cancer compared to last year due to a marked drop in screening during the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors worry.
The main reason why the number of oncology surgeries has fallen 15% from last year is that there were virtually no new patients this spring.
“I haven’t seen any new cancer for three or four months […] The problem was not to operate [les patientes], but to diagnose them, to get into the system, ”explains Dr Sarkis Meterissian, oncological surgeon at the McGill University Health Center.
The Dre Louise Provencher and he are the scientific co-directors of the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation.
They are presenting statistics today on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of a virtual forum of the organization.
Good and bad news
They report both good news and bad news.
” Delays [d’attente pour une chirurgie] were similar or roughly to those of the year before, ”emphasizes the oncologist at the Center hospitalier universitaire de Québec. In other words, a majority of patients were able to be operated on within 28 days.
However, from March to August 2020, 732 fewer breast cancer surgeries were done, according to data obtained from the Department of Health and Social Services.
“Patients who had symptoms of breast cancer or lumps they felt did not consult,” concludes the Dre Provencher.
Patients who visit the Drs Provencher and Meterissian must first be referred by a family doctor.
Empty waiting list
Sarkis Meterissian is used to having a waiting list of 20 to 30 patients for cancer surgeries, he says. In July, there were only three left.
The most urgent cases were prioritized, and since the majority of breast cancer surgeries are day surgeries, it was easier to move forward during the pandemic.
Nonetheless, oncological surgeons believe the gaping hole caused by COVID-19 in screening is still impossible to measure. Annually, more than 6,000 breast cancers are diagnosed in Quebec, and it is the most common cancer in women.
“We do not know the impact for these patients who were not diagnosed during this period […] Will the diagnosis be delayed, will the prognosis be different? Nobody knows, ”says Louise Provencher.
” [Le cancer], we want to find it sooner rather than too late, ”she continues.
Sarkis Meterissian and she appeal to women not to be afraid to consult. They ensure that medical clinics take all necessary precautions against COVID-19.
Anguish for postponed surgery
A Saint-Jérôme woman, diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer just before confinement in March, has lived through months of anguish with her surgery postponed.
“We live with the fear of not receiving treatment, of contracting the virus [de la COVID-19] and that it harms our care, that our specialists contract it and that it postpones our care, ”lists Carole Giroux to illustrate her ordeal.
Director of human resources at a law firm, the 47-year-old learned on March 5 that she had triple negative breast cancer. It is an aggressive type of cancer with a high risk of recurrence.
“If there’s breast cancer you don’t want, it’s him,” she hisses.
Her case was urgent, she had to cancel a planned trip to Africa and prepare to go under the knife at the end of March. Then, COVID-19 turned everything upside down.
“It was a mess for me,” she laments. Her surgery was twice canceled, so she made her will and made arrangements, fearing the worst.
More than a month after his diagnosis, his protocol was finally changed to prioritize chemotherapy treatments first.
She also deplores the lack of follow-up that she has experienced.
“Everything was disorganized,” she says.
No one explained to her how her treatments would go or what side effects she would suffer from. “I had to learn on the job”, continues Mme Giroux.
Her tumor was finally removed after her chemotherapy treatments, at the end of August. She is now waiting for the start of her radiotherapy.
Mother of a 22 year old son and grandmother of a little boy, she also suffered from the isolation necessary for her medical condition.
“To be all alone, I find it difficult […] Just knowing that we have cancer is difficult, but there it has been multiplied by I do not know how much, ”she admits.
She hopes the healthcare system has learned lessons from the first wave of COVID-19 to prevent other women from going through this painful ordeal in such a chaotic fashion.