Decline in cancer diagnoses in Canada in 2020 raises concerns

A drop in the number of cancer diagnoses would normally be something to celebrate.

However, the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network (CCSN) is raising concerns after recent Statistics Canada data showed there was a 12 per cent decrease in the number of new cases reported in 2020 compared to the five-year period prior.

“In any other circumstance, this new data would be welcomed and celebrated by the cancer advocacy community,” said CCSN President and CEO Jackie Manthorne. “Many cancers are treatable, but only when Canadians have the tools and the means to discover the disease quickly. The Canadian healthcare system, when harnessed properly with current techniques, drugs, and therapies, can turn cancer from a fatal disease to something chronic and more manageable.”

The organization has been vocal about its #CancerCantWait campaign over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. It says the fear associated with the decline in new cases was attributed to the fact not as many resources were available when the virus brought much of the world to a standstill, including healthcare systems.

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“During prolonged lock-down periods we knew many Canadians would be at risk and some would be denied access to timely diagnosis and treatment,” Manthorne said.

The figures from Statistics Canada cited by the CCSN show overall diagnoses among males declined more than those affecting females. Incident rates observed for breast, lung and bronchus, prostate, and colorectal cancers “were all lower than expected,” the CCSN said, adding a similar trend was reported in the U.S.

The decrease in new cases reported was chalked up to a few factors. The CCSN says Statistics Canada listed three potential reasons for the decline in 2020, including screening disruptions, difficulties in accessing care, and fewer in-person appointments due to virus concerns.

The network also cites media reports that have painted a worrying trend — more advanced stages of cancer and other diseases being diagnosed post-pandemic, in some cases, too late.

“As a result, many Canadians are being given a late cancer diagnosis and, sadly, this will result in more individuals dying of cancer, all because we were too cautious during the pandemic. Sadly, there will be fewer survivors,” Manthorne added.

The CCSN says the healthcare system failed to provide for Canadians, noting it also fell short when it came to providing “physicians and nurses with the necessary means required to do their jobs.”

Resource challenges

In B.C., the province is still struggling with healthcare resources, as it deals with an ongoing shortage of doctors.

In May, the B.C. government announced it would be sending up to 50 cancer patients weekly to facilities in the U.S. for care.

“Using this additional, available capacity beyond a patient’s B.C. health authority in Bellingham will help B.C. reduce radiation therapy wait times for breast and prostate cancer patients,” B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said.

He cited figures from BC Cancer which suggest the province could have up to 45,000 cancer patients by 2034, an increase from 30,000 in 2021, with half of cancer patients needing radiation as a treatment.

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