Australia’s Cancer Organisations Unite to Urgently Tackle ‘Symptom Hesitancy’ and Testing ‘Rollercoaster’ During Pandemic

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‘New Normal, Same Cancer: Conversations’ warns people to get unusual and persistent symptoms checked by their doctor now, to increase detection and improve survival chances, following a slump in cancer testing and screening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Growing concern among Australian cancer organisations that ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, and delays in routine procedures are causing cancer ‘symptom hesitancy’, as people put off seeing their GP for health checks and attending or booking screening and testing appointments.
  • Services providers are reporting a testing ‘rollercoaster effect‘, with people coming forward, then hestitating, as COVID restrictions are imposed and lifted, causing changes to appointment scheduling and routine services.
  • Current data show there were between 27% to 50%1 fewer diagnostic procedures for breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer during the first wave of the pandemic (March-April 2020), meaning thousands of Australians may be living with undiagnosed cancer.
  • Around 145,000 fewer mammograms performed through BreastScreen Australia in January to June 2020 compared with January to June 2018.2

SYDNEY, Aug. 10, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Cancer organisations across Australia have today launched a joint campaign to urgently tackle cancer ‘symptom hesitancy’, a COVID-related health crisis that has seen the number of people coming forward for testing, screening and routine follow-up treatment plummet during the pandemic. Launching today, the New Normal Same Cancer: Conversations campaign aims to reduce delays in cancer being diagnosed.

COVID-19 has had multiple impacts on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Service providers are reporting a ‘rollercoaster effect’ in people coming forward for testing procedures relating to cancer investigations and treatment in response to the pandemic.3 During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there were approximately 148,000 fewer diagnostic procedures for breast, colorectal, lung, and prostate cancers compared to the same period in 2019.1 The decline appears to increase when restrictions are imposed and flatten when they are lifted.

Compared to the same period in 2019, between January-September 2020, there were:1  

  • 16,694 fewer diagnostic procedures and 1,109 fewer surgical procedures for breast cancer
  • 78,048 fewer diagnostic and 381 fewer surgical procedures for colorectal cancer
  • 961 fewer diagnostic and 180 more surgical procedures for lung cancer
  • 52,471 tests fewer diagnostic and 305 fewer surgical procedures for prostate cancer
  • 34,268 fewer non-surgical and surgical procedures for skin cancers other than melanomas and melanoma skin cancers

Australia’s leading cancer organisations are worried that ongoing lockdowns and changing restrictions are establishing ‘cancer symptom hesitancy’ as the new normal in cancer treatment. They believe this hesitancy to get symptoms checked and attend appointments is one of the biggest challenges facing the entire cancer community.

Featuring hard-hitting real life stories, the new conversations campaign has received official support from the Chief Executive of Cancer Australia, Professor Dorothy Keefe, who has a simple message for anyone experiencing unusual or persistent symptoms: Don’t wait. Contact your doctor. Get checked.

Professor Keefe adds: “It’s natural to think, if we have a new symptom, that it will probably clear up on its own. We tend to think that these things can wait. But unfortunately, cancer won’t wait. It’s really important to know your body and know the symptoms to look out for. Most symptoms are due to something less serious than cancer but, if it is cancer, the earlier it is found the better.” 4,5

The campaign urges people not to brush off or ignore symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, tiredness, unexplained aches or pains, or an unusual lump or swelling,4,5 as any potential delays in diagnosing and treating cancer may lead to a more advanced stage of the disease at diagnosis and result in poorer patient outcomes.6

Mark Brooke, Chief Executive of the Lung Foundation, says: “New Normal Same Cancer: Conversations will resonate with all of us. It’s all too easy to play down our own health needs because, in our COVID-19 impacted lives, there always seem more important things to deal with. But, as this campaign shows, if you have unusual or persistent symptoms, having a conversation with your GP needs to be a priority, whatever your age.”

Sharon Millman, Chief Executive of Lymphoma Australia, says: “This powerful campaign is vital if we are to help more Australians diagnose their cancer at the earliest opportunity. If you have a persistent symptom, please don’t wait for COVID-19 to end before seeing your doctor. Because cancer won’t wait.”

Contact your doctor: If you are experiencing any symptoms, are due for a screen or test, or if you feel something is wrong, talk to your doctor.

Reschedule testing: Book an appointment for testing or screening that you may have delayed and or missed due to COVID-19.

Share the message on social media: Tell your loved ones to get checked and encourage others to do the same using the hashtag #NewNormalSameCancer

The cancer organisations who have joined the New Normal Same Cancer campaign are; Cancer Australia, Bowel Cancer Australia, GI Cancer Institute, Leukaemia Foundation, Lymphoma Australia, Lung Foundation Australia, Neuroendocrine Cancer Australia, Ovarian Cancer Australia, Pancare Foundation, Pankind, Pink Hope, Prostate Cancer Australia, Rare Cancers Australia, and So Brave.

To find out more about the campaign and to watch conversations with people about their symptoms and cancer diagnosis, visit www.newnormalsamecancer.com.au

The campaign is supported by AstraZeneca, Australia.

References

1.  Cancer Australia 2020. National and jurisdictional data on the impact of COVID-19 on medical services and procedures in Australia: Breast, colorectal, lung, prostate and skin cancers. Cancer Australia, Surry Hills, NSW. Available at: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/national-and-jurisdictional-data-impact-covid-19-medical-services-and-procedures-australia-breast/pdf/national_and_jurisdictional_data_on_the_impact_of_covid-19_on_medical_services_and_procedures_in_australia.pdf. Accessed August 2021.

2.  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia. Cat. No. CAN 136. Canberra: AIHW. Available at:  https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/cancer-screening/cancer-screening-and-covid-19-in-australia/contents/did-fewer-people-screen-for-cancer-during-the-covid-19-pandemic. Accessed August 2021.

3.   Cancer Australia 2020. Review of the impact of COVID-19 on medical services and procedures in Australia utilising MBS data: Lung and prostate cancers. Cancer Australia, Surry Hills, NSW. Available at: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/review-impact-covid-19-medical-services-and-procedures-australia-utilising-mbs-data-lung-and/pdf/review_of_the_impact_of_covid-19_on_medical_services_and_procedures_in_australia_utilising_mbs_data_lung_and_prostate_cancers.pdf. Accessed August 2021.

4.  Health Direct. Cancer. Symptoms. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/cancer#symptoms. Accessed August 2021.

5.  Cancer Australia. Cancer Won’t Wait. Available at: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-wont-wait. Accessed August 2021.

6.  Degeling K, Baxter NN, Emery J, et al. An inverse stage-shift model to estimate the excess mortality and health economic impact of delayed access to cancer services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Asia Pac J Clin Oncol. 2021;17(4):359-367. doi:10.1111/ajco.13505.