The measures taken at the start of the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium in March led to a drastic fall in the number of cancers diagnosed, a fact which is already demonstrating severe consequences, according to a leading oncologist.
“We now need to try to cure more advanced tumours, with more onerous, more complex therapies,” said Gert De Meerleer, head of oncology-radiotherapy at Leuven university hospital.
“We’re going to be seeing the consequences of this for a long time, with an increase in cancer deaths. Please get yourself examined.”
According to the Cancer Register Foundation, which logs all cases of cancer in the country, March saw a rapid decline in the number of cancer diagnoses, followed by a fall of 44% in April.
The reason: in order to deploy medical resources towards Covid-19 patients, especially in intensive care, all non-emergency consultations, tests and interventions were halted. Instead of the expected 5,725 diagnoses expected, the actual number was 44% down compared to April 2019.
The numbers did start to recover later, but the takeaway from the figures is that almost half of the cancers that should have been diagnosed in April were allowed to persist until May at least, if not later.
Then came the summer, and the numbers of people seeking diagnoses fell again, as people were once again reluctant to visit their own doctor or a hospital.
And the results can now be seen, Professor Meerleer said.
“In recent weeks I have seen tumours in my practice that I thought still existed only in the history books,” he told the VRT.
“Fellow oncologists see breast tumours that are much larger than before. I have colleagues who hardly see any patients, and wonder where those people have gone. And that’s all because people have postponed necessary screenings and follow-up examinations.”
And the consequences will still be showing later.
“It’s only logical: the later you find a tumour, the more complex it has become, the more difficult it is to treat, and the chance of relapse later is greater. We don’t see that in the first months, we can keep most tumours stable for years. But we fear an excess mortality from cancer over the years to come.”