Establish system to handle cancer treatment amid COVID-19 pandemic

REUTERS/Akira Tomoshige
Medical workers at Osaka Medical and Pharmaceutical University Hospital work in the operation wing of the hospital, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Takatsuki, Osaka prefecture, Japan May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021.

The treatment of cancer patients at medical institutions has been affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Deaths from cancer are increasing, and efforts must be made to establish a medical system that is compatible with treating COVID-19 patients.

Cancer surgeries are on the decline amid the pandemic. About 80% of state-designated cancer hospitals nationwide saw a decrease in the number of cancer surgeries in 2020 from the previous year, a questionnaire by The Yomiuri Shimbun found.

According to a survey conducted by Yokohama City University, the number of patients diagnosed with early-stage gastric or colorectal cancer at hospitals between March and December last year was 30% lower than usual. In contrast, there were 70% more cases in which patients were diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer.

This is partly because non-COVID-19 patients hesitated to see a doctor over fears of contracting the virus at a hospital. Considering the situation last year when vaccines were not available and in-hospital infections were common, such concerns may be understandable.

Currently, the inoculation campaign is progressing and hospitals are moving forward with measures to prevent infection. It is important for hospitals to increase the number of beds for treating COVID-19 patients to prepare for the further spread of infections and, at the same time, to establish a system that is also conducive to handling cancer patients, so that institutions can encourage people to see doctors.

State-designated cancer hospitals have consultation centers. Many facilities also receive calls for counseling. Those who do not want to visit a hospital over fears of infection could first call and ask for advice.

According to the government’s vital statistics released this month, a record 380,000 people died of cancer last year, accounting for about 30% of all deaths in the nation. By some estimates, the number will likely grow even further if the pandemic prevents people from receiving proper cancer treatment.

According to the Japan Cancer Society, the number of people who underwent the society’s cancer screening tests last year decreased by 30%, suggesting the possibility that 2,100 people with cancer remain undiagnosed. The number of those who underwent the screening tests in the first half of this year was down by 20% compared to the period before the coronavirus outbreak, the society said.

The central and local governments, as well as state-designated cancer hospitals, should pay close attention not only to measures against the coronavirus but also to cancer patients, so as not to delay the detection and treatment of the disease.

Support for cancer inpatients is also important. Many patients are now forced to battle illness in isolation because of restrictions on hospital visits as part of measures to prevent nosocomial infections.

Online video calls give inpatients emotional support, but a private survey found that only 20% of hospitals provide free Wi-Fi service in all the patients’ rooms, while about half of the hospitals surveyed had none at all.

An environment should be created in which cancer patients are able to receive treatment in a positive manner even amid the pandemic.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 27, 2021.