Are oncologists ready to confront a second wave of COVID-19?


Canceled appointments, postponed surgeries, and delayed cancer diagnoses – all are a recipe for exhaustion for oncologists around the world, struggling to reach and treat their patients during the pandemic. Physicians and their teams felt the pain as COVID-19 took its initial march around the globe.

“We saw the distress of people with cancer who could no longer get to anyone on the phone. Their medical visit was usually canceled. Their radiotherapy session was postponed or modified, and chemotherapy postponed,” says Axel Kahn, MD, chairman of the board of directors of La Ligue Nationale Contre le Cancer (National League Against Cancer). “In the vast majority of cases, cancer treatment can be postponed or readjusted, without affecting the patient’s chances of survival, but there has been a lot of anxiety because the patients do not know that.”

The stay-at-home factor was one that played out across many months during the first wave.

“I believe that the ‘stay-home’ message that we transmitted was rigorously followed by patients who should have come to the emergency room much earlier and who, therefore, were admitted with a much more deteriorated general condition than in non-COVID-19 times,” says Benjamín Domingo Arrué, MD, from the department of medical oncology at Hospital Universitari i Politècnic La Fe in Valencia, Spain.

And in Brazil, some of the impact from the initial hit of COVID-19 on oncology is only now being felt, according to Laura Testa, MD, head of breast medical oncology, Instituto do Câncer do Estado de São Paulo.

“We are starting to see a lot of cancer cases that didn’t show up at the beginning of the pandemic, but now they are arriving to us already in advanced stages,” she said. “These patients need hospital care. If the situation worsens and goes back to what we saw at the peak of the curve, I fear the public system won’t be able to treat properly the oncology patients that need hospital care and the patients with cancer who also have COVID-19.”

But even as health care worker fatigue and concerns linger, oncologists say that what they have learned in the last 6 months has helped them prepare as COVID-19 cases increase and a second global wave kicks up.

Lessons from the first wave

In the United States, COVID-19 hit different regions at different times and to different degrees. One of the areas hit first was Seattle.

“We jumped on top of this, we were evidence based, we put things in place very, very quickly,” said Julie Gralow, MD, professor at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, both in Seattle.

“We did a really good job keeping COVID out of our cancer centers,” Dr. Gralow said. “We learned how to be super safe, and to keep symptomatic people out of the building, and to limit the extra people they could bring with them. It’s all about the number of contacts you have.”

The story was different, though, for oncologists in several other countries, and sometimes it varied immensely within each nation.

“We treated fewer patients with cancer during the first wave,” says Dirk Arnold, MD, medical director of the Asklepios Tumor Center Hamburg (Germany), in an interview. “In part, this was because staff were quarantined and because we had a completely different infrastructure in all of the hospitals. But also fewer patients with cancer came to the clinic at all. A lot of resources were directed toward COVID-19.”

In Spain, telemedicine helped keep up with visits, but other areas felt the effect of COVID-19 patient loads.

“At least in the oncology department of our center, we have practically maintained 100% of visits, mostly by telephone,” says Dr. Arrué, “but the reality is that our country has not yet been prepared for telemedicine.”

Laura Mezquita, MD, of the department of medical oncology at Hospital Clinic de Barcelona, describes a more dramatic situation: “We have seen how some of our patients, especially with metastatic disease, have been dismissed for intensive care and life-support treatments, as well as specific treatments against COVID-19 (tocilizumab, remdesivir, etc.) due to the general health collapse of the former wave,” she said. She adds that specific oncologic populations, such as those with thoracic tumors, have been more affected.


Next Article: