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COVID-19 lockdowns saw 1 in 7 scheduled cancer surgeries missed

A new global study with links to Western University shows one in seven cancer patients had their scheduled surgery bumped because of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Led by researchers at the University of Birmingham, the study by COVIDSurg Collaborative had nearly 5,000 surgeons and anesthetists from around the world analyze data on the 15 most common solid cancer types. They looked at 20,000 patients across 466 hospitals in 61 countries.

What they found was that during full lockdowns, 15 per cent of patients did not get their planned operation after a median of 5.3 months following diagnosis. In all cases, the reason for the missed operation was COVID-19 related, researchers said. The number of planned surgery cancellations or delays dropped to just 0.6 per cent when light restrictions related to the virus were in place.

"Never before have we experienced a global surgery shutdown as that precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Janet Martin, a Canadian principal investigator for the COVIDSurg Collaborative study, and associate professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “The implication for people with cancer is significant, and the full impact is not yet known. It is only a matter of time before elective surgery becomes urgent."

The researchers added that cancer surgeries were affected by lockdowns no matter how high or low the local COVID-19 rate was at the time. Patients in lower-income countries were found to be at the highest risk of missing their surgery.

According to researchers, patients forced to wait more than six weeks during a lockdown were "significantly" less likely to undergo their surgery. That included frail patients, individuals with advanced cancer, and those waiting surgery in lower-middle income countries.

"Caring for complications of COVID-19 competes with the same set of resources as surgery. Surgical systems in Canada and around the globe need to urgently coordinate plans, prioritize resources, and implement strategies to reverse the ongoing pandemic effect on cancer surgery," said Martin.

She added that community members also need to do their part by getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and continuing to follow public health measures, which would help reduce spread.

"This reduces the need for COVID-19 hospitalizations that have led to surgical shutdowns," said Martin. "These actions will allow our surgical systems to recover and address the backlogs sooner.”

Researchers are hopeful the data collected in the study, which has been published in The Lancet Oncology, will help governments decide whether to prolong or reduce restrictions.

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