How COVID-19 Is Impacting Oncology Patients and Cancer Side Effects

By: Jackie Nestico, Engagement Associate, Think Research

Ongoing oncology appointments are important for patients going through oral chemotherapy. It gives them an opportunity to discuss their side effects and rework their treatment if necessary. 

When patients experience unpleasant side effects, they ideally contact their care team and possibly stop the oral medication. There’s usually a channel of communication to determine if they require urgent care, or if their side effects are mild enough that it can wait until their next visit.

This communication is important as 50 per cent of patients discontinued their oral chemotherapy treatment and used their next appointment to talk about side effects prior to the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic has greatly impacted our healthcare system, causing delays when it comes to care — which is especially harmful for people with cancer who are already at greater risk of severe outcomes due to COVID-19.

Now, fears of contracting the virus during an in-person medical appointment are leaving many patients suffering, likely reducing side effect reporting.  

“There’s challenges with disclosure [of side effects]. Patients almost feel better off suffering in silence at home,” says Alia Thawer, an oncology pharmacist at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre. 

“And most importantly, they don’t want to be told to come in, out of fear of COVID-19. The biggest impact COVID-19 has had is access to care. People are not accessing care because they’re scared.”

It’s not just oral chemotherapy side effects people are dealing with. Previously, there were interruptions to routine cancer treatments as hospitals prepared to manage COVID-19, leaving many patients worried about the impact on their cancer prognosis.

“The pandemic has given rise to two cohorts of patients: those with an extreme fear of COVID-19 [and those with] an extreme fear of their cancer,” says Thawer. 

“The cohort of patients that are COVID-scared don’t want to come in; they want to delay their chemotherapy treatment because they don’t want to be exposed to COVID-19. If there’s an opportunity to delay, they’d rather do that.”

Fortunately, telemedicine has been invaluable throughout the pandemic and has greatly improved access to care. Cancer Care Ontario recently released guidelines to optimize virtual cancer delivery.  

Thawer stresses that the pandemic shouldn’t mean no communication between patients and their doctors. It may just mean remote communication at times.  

“I always tell patients, if your side effects are causing you discomfort, that’s not okay.”

Learn more about how VirtualCare can help doctors and patients maintain communication through secure and safe virtual visits.