Icon Cancer Centre Warrnambool site manager Liam Jukes and Nurse Unit Manager Kahla Boulton. Picture: Anthony Brady

Icon Cancer Centre Warrnambool site manager Liam Jukes and Nurse Unit Manager Kahla Boulton. Picture: Anthony Brady

Fears cancer going undiagnosed after 'huge' decline in patients during pandemic

Decline in cancer referrals concern Warrnambool oncologists

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'The earlier we find it the easier it is to find a cure'

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Oncologists are urging anyone who put off health concerns due to COVID-19 to speak to their GP.

The Icon Cancer Centre in Warrnambool in south west Victoria saw an up to 40 per cent decline in cancer referrals last year, indicating many cancers may have gone undiagnosed due to the pandemic.

Breastscreen Australia had 150,000 less screens in a six month period in 2020 said Icon Warrnambool site manager Liam Jukes.

"We saw a huge reduction last year, breast cancer makes up around 40 per cent of our radical work here and we've definitely noticed breast screening going down in our regional communities," he said.

"For a lot of breast screenings you have to go to Melbourne so the anxiety I think for many patients during the lockdown period about going into Melbourne put off a lot of those appointments.

"The incidents of cancer are about 30 to 40 per cent less than previous years due to COVID."

The Warrnambool centre saw a 20 per cent drop on radiotherapy treatment, 10 per cent of which was due to the closure of the Victorian and South Australian boarder.

There was an increase in patients enquiring to have their treatment locally to avoid travelling to Melbourne or Geelong.

"Because of border closures we're expecting a big intake from our Mount Gambier patients because it's two hours to Warrnambool and four to Adelaide.

"Due to those really strict border closures we've not captured those people either.

"It's been really tough for those border communities; all of a sudden those South Australian patients who wanted to come here for treatment or have had that option, that was taken away from them.

"Having to go to Adelaide for five or six weeks compared to being able to come to Warrnambool and be able to go home on weekends is such a big difference."

The Warrnambool cancer centre sees around 330 cancer patients a year, with around 60 per cent receiving radiation and 40 per cent palliative care.

The incidents of cancer are about 40 per cent less than previous years due to COVID. - Liam Jukes

In the last year that number dropped to the 200s.

"In saying that we are seeing the influx in patients now that GPs are more available and the COVID anxiety has decreased in the community," Mr Jukes said.

"New patient starts have doubled in the last two months and we are likely to see a large influx of new cancer diagnosis over the next six months.

"We're now seeing more people tested and the diagnoses that we know are out there are coming through."

Nurse Unit Manager Kahla Boulton said with cancer patients being immunocompromised many appointments were transferred to telehealth.

"We had to make some huge changes and adapt to all the changes the government were putting in," she said. "It was really a day-by-day scenario.

"A lot of patients suffered socially too, a lot of time treatments were a relief because they could actually interact with people to help them through that period.

"In some ways we supported patients more because there were more check-ins with phone calls and trying to make sure that anxiety of COVID and having cancer wasn't a double impact on those patients."

Read also: How the COVID-19 vaccine will roll out in regional areas

Cancers are often detected through procedures like colonoscopies, bowel screenings and blood tests, many of which were shelved through 2020 as more urgent procedures took priority.

New quarterly data shows elective surgery wait times at South West Healthcare blew out in 2020, with 90 per cent of patients waiting an average of 381 days for treatment compared to 133 the year before.

As of the final quarter of 2020 there were 1180 patients on the elective surgery waitlist, compared to 876 the same time the year before.

New and review appointments at SWH specialist clinics dropped by more than 2000.

Mr Jukes urged people to look for signs and symptoms of cancer, talk with their GP, get tested, take part in screening programs and, if necessary, engage with cancer treatment.

The Icon Cancer Centre Warrnambool team urge people to attend their regular health checkups. Picture: Anthony Brady

The Icon Cancer Centre Warrnambool team urge people to attend their regular health checkups. Picture: Anthony Brady

"We want to encourage people to get checked because we know there are cancer incidences out there, we just need to find them," he said.

"If you have symptoms or you notice a change, go and get tested.

"Because of COVID we're seeing now a lot of later stage presentations. When it comes to cancer the earlier we find it the easier it is to find a cure.

"We know there's still cancer out there in the community so go and see your specialist and get your regular testing and checkups."

Around 60 people work at the Warrnambool cancer centre and have seen firsthand the anxiety a pandemic induces on cancer patients with little-to-no immune system.

They ask people to think of others when following hand hygiene and social distancing requirements.

"Follow the local government rules, when it comes to COVID what we do is not only to protect ourselves and our families but to protect everyone in the community, especial those who are most vulnerable," Mr Jukes said.

"The more we can do to social distance, wear masks and potentially get the vaccine when it comes out not only protects your family and loved ones but also everyone else around you."

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