Dr Olivia Ashman, Pfizer UK Oncology Medical Director, discusses what the future holds for cancer care post COVID-19 and the essential role that the pharmaceutical industry must play to ensure that patients don’t become casualties of the pandemic.1
COVID-19 has affected all aspects of our lives – from how we work, to how we see our friends and families. We’ve all experienced levels of disruption that will likely continue to have a profound impact on our lives for years to come. For some, the impact has been more pronounced. In particular for the 2.5 million people currently living with cancer in the UK,2 where the threat of the virus has delayed diagnosis, delayed surgeries and disrupted treatment plans.3
The cancer community is facing unique challenges and concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. While anybody can get the virus, people living with cancer may be at higher risk of health complications because cancer and cancer treatment can contribute to weakened immune systems.4 Fear of the virus has been widespread5 and patients and their doctors are grappling with difficult questions about how to navigate care, including whether it is safe to continue treatment, whether their care will be de-prioritised6 and what precautions might need to be taken to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus. Concerns about the risks of some anticancer treatment in a time of COVID-19 have also led to changes globally in prescribing patterns for chemotherapy and anticancer treatments.5
With the health of our nation in such a precarious state, it’s essential that we are doing all that we can to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and support patients; and this goes beyond just cancer care. The fight against COVID-19 is a truly global endeavour, and scientific and medical colleagues across the world have been working tirelessly since the outbreak to develop a potential vaccine and treatment for COVID-19. There have also been tremendous efforts by Pfizer to ensure medicines supply isn’t disrupted and that all patients, including cancer patients, can receive vital medicines.
Throughout this difficult period, we have also continued to support the NHS. We know that many oncologists are being redeployed to fight the virus5 so we established our Medicine Service Programme. It has enabled thousands of medical professionals, employed by Pfizer, to return to hospitals to support in the treatment and provision of public health support, and I’m proud to say that a number of our appropriately qualified oncology team returned to work in the NHS as doctors and pharmacists.
While we may never live in a completely COVID-free world, we know measures will ease – children are now returning to schools, international travel will increase and prolonged visits to loved ones will become the norm again. But what will the long-term impact of the virus be on cancer care and people living with cancer? Will their lives ever return to normal?
Disruption to cancer care has been huge. Screening was paused and delayed across the UK,7 to protect people from COVID-19 and divert NHS staff to support critical services.8 This has led some to warn that cancer patients are missing out on vital treatment.7
Cancer Research UK warns that the number of urgent referrals in England has dropped by 75 per cent during the pandemic.9 As a result, 200,000 people per week are not being screened for bowel, breast and cervical cancer across the UK, with a significant number of early cancers left undetected.7 It is estimated that over two million patients a year would attend these vital checks to detect tumours early, but most health trusts have stopped sending out letters.10
As people avoid hospitals and delay getting symptoms checked, there have been a number of warnings about a “cancer epidemic” in the future – a report published in the European Journal of Cancer highlights how the repurposing of health systems and social distancing measures have had negative effects on those living with cancer.11 We’ve also seen reports of an increase in fear and anxiety amongst people living with cancer as a result of disruption to surgery and clinical trials.12
It’s critical therefore that everyone – government, pharma and the NHS – works together to reassure patients. In the wake of the pandemic we’ve seen our industry work at an unpresented pace, fast-tracking research and trials to battle the common enemy in COVID-19. At Pfizer, we’ve compressed years of work into a matter of months to reach the point we’re at now. And this agile approach must continue in the future. Our team of scientists and researchers are focused on discovering and developing medicines that make a real difference to patients’ lives, seeking the cancer treatments and cures of the future. But by working together, we can make cancer treatment even better for patients.
We recognise that this is an incredibly worrying time for so many and we remain committed to working alongside the NHS and patient groups to help overcome the challenges we are all facing together.
You can learn more about Pfizer Oncology’s commitment to supporting cancer patients through the COVID-19 outbreak at: https://www.rpharms.com/resources/podcast-central
- The Lancet. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK. July 2020.
- Macmillan Cancer Support. Statistics Fact Sheet. February 2019.
- Nature. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care. May 2020
- American Soceity of Clinical Oncology. Common questions about COVID-19 and Cancer. May 2020.
- The Lancet. COVID-19 mortality in patients with cancer on chemotherapy or other anticancer treatments. May 2020.
- The Lancet. Safeguarding cancer care in a post-COVID-19 world. April 2020
- Cancer Research UK. How coronavirus is impacting cancer services in the UK. April 2020.
- Cancer Research UK. Cancer screening and coronavirus (COVID-19). July 2020.
- The Times. Coronavirus: Thousands of cancers going undiagnosed, warns charity. April 2020.
- NHS England. Annual NHS cancer checks top two million for the first time. April 2019.
- European Journal of Cancer. Cancer and coronavirus disease 2019. April 2020.
- The Independent. Thousands with breast cancer fearing they could die more quickly due to cornovirus crisis. May 2020
PP-PFE-GBR-4225 / November 2021