Don’t delay screening for cancer, says oncologist

IN JUNE, the US government’s top cancer doctor Norman Sharpless estimated in his article in Science magazine that pandemic-caused delays in cancer screenings and treatment are likely to cause devastating results in the coming years, citing that there may be “10,000 more breast and colorectal cancer deaths over the next decade.”

This is indeed an alarming projection.

However, where local patients are concerned, Sunway Medical Centre’s clinical oncologist Dr Aqilah Othman (pic) says there are more differences than similarities which makes the situation between the US and Malaysia a case of apples and oranges.

“Pandemic or not, we have always been facing issues with late diagnoses of cancer.

“Overall, Malaysia is still improving in encouraging the uptake of cancer screening, ” Dr Aqilah said, citing the results provided by National Cancer Institute in its 2018 Malaysian Study on Cancer Survival report.

The doctor explained that while cancelling on cancer screenings might not necessarily jeopardise an individual’s health, it could have a severe impact on patients who delayed or even cancelled their treatment.

“I had patients who, despite all reassurances, had cancelled their appointments out of fear of getting the virus.

“It is deeply regrettable that for some of them, their condition worsened drastically, ” she said.

Across the globe, there is enough research that backs the detrimental effects of delaying cancer treatment whereby postponing chemotherapy by 90 days or even surgery by 30 days can lead to worse chances of survival.

A specific study published in American Medical Association’s medical journal JAMA Oncology compared women who started chemotherapy within 30 days of surgery and women who started chemotherapy 91 or more days after surgery. The latter are more likely to succumb to breast cancer or other cause.

“What people need to be convinced of is that of all places, hospitals are the ones that practise the most stringent procedures and protocols to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as Covid-19, ” said Dr Aqilah.

In the events leading up to the movement control order till now, The Health Ministry and other government bodies have been stringently swift in managing the spread of the virus –- regulating business operating hours, enforcing physical distancing and other standard operating procedures, and publishing guidelines for hospitals to follow.

Alternative approaches have also been on the rise as the healthcare industry galvanises a response to the pandemic.

Dr Aqilah explained that she had conducted teleconsultation sessions with patients who were required to undergo home quarantine.

“While there are some limitations as opposed to physically meeting the patients, there is enough support in ensuring a proper diagnosis can be made, ” she said.

As Malaysians continue to monitor the ongoing struggle against Covid-19, the chances of Malaysia mirroring the cancer rates projected by Dr Sharpless still remain slim, she opined.

“Our situation is thankfully not as dire as compared to the

US. “But it does not dismiss the importance of receiving cancer treatment, ” she stressed.

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