COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer patients: A cancer surgeon’s reflections

image of empty operating room

‘I’m really sorry; I don’t know when your cancer surgery will be.’

It’s something I wish I never had to say. But, as a breast cancer and melanoma surgeon, I’ve said those words to my patients too many times to count since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

And now, as hospitals battle the crush of Wave 3, I’m having these difficult conversations again.

I am stressed. Angry. Frustrated. Scared. We’ve been here before, and we saw this coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

All hospitals in Ontario have been asked to stop elective surgeries in order to preserve ICU capacity as well as for human resources reasons. Operating room nurses and other personnel have been redeployed to other areas of the hospital.

Elective surgery is any surgery that is scheduled, and can include even cancer surgery.

The cancer surgical team meets on Zoom several times a week to review all the patients in need of surgery and make a list of who is really urgent. Who are the people who really need to have the surgery in the next two to three weeks or they will suffer irreversible harm?

These are challenging discussions and decisions. And speaking to a patient whose cancer surgery is being postponed – sometimes with the new date unknown – is extremely challenging and distressing, too.

For the most part, patients see what is happening with COVID-19 and they understand. They don’t like it but they understand. It is shocking to us all that any cancer surgery isn’t considered an emergency. When you hear that you have cancer, you want that out of your body as fast as possible

All I can do is apologize and try to reassure people we are still here to care for them.

My colleagues and I work with each patient to ensure there is a plan as they wait for surgical removal of the cancer, be it chemotherapy, systemic therapy, or the removal of a skin lesion in the clinic.

Please know we are still doing our best for each of our patients.

We also see many people who have been scared to come to the hospital or seek healthcare when they’ve needed it. And that’s another part of this whole thing that scares me. Delaying seeking care can mean your illness is more advanced and harder to treat when you do connect with the healthcare team.

If you have a change in your health, or you notice a change in your breast or something unusual on your skin, please call your doctor.

We know the fallout of this pandemic on cancer care will be felt for years to come. Please do whatever you can to stop the spread of COVID-19 so we can get back to cancer surgery as soon as possible. Follow public health measures and take any vaccine offered to you at your first opportunity.

About the author

Dr. Frances Wright

Dr. Frances Wright

Dr. Frances Wright is a breast cancer and melanoma surgeon at Sunnybrook.