Michael died on a cold sunlit day following months in hospital. A childhood cancer survivor, he’d developed secondary cancer aged 26. His older sister Julie was at his bedside. His mother, whom I’ve known for years, was not.
She’d been denied visiting access following his hospital admission.
The tragedy here is that this young man not only lost his life but that he was unable to be with his mother during the most painful and desperately difficult moments of his treatment.
Covid measures have resulted in most hospitals prohibiting visitors. This means that millions have died alone not only from the virus but also from a multitude of other diseases.
When I ran into his sister in the street she had the haunted look of the recently bereaved, the dull, empty stare of those who’ve walked through the apocalypse and barely survived.
She needed to tell me about her ordeal, about Michael, about how her mother couldn’t cope and hadn’t left home since the funeral.
I’ve seen the horror of cancer up close, so I know how vicious it can be. As a loss mother, I get the depth of her family’s despair.
As we talked, I asked her how it was that she was able to stay with her brother. She explained that when he was rushed to the hospital in acute pain she realized that he was going to be alone, so she dug her heels in and refused to leave.
Eventually, paperwork was provided — she signed countless documents undertaking to never walk out of his room, not even into the corridor.
It was six months later, after Michael died, that she left the hospital again.
It’s hard to believe but this brother and sister were cut off from their family for over half a year with only an iPad as a means of communication.
She was thankful that he received medical treatment and, in the end, palliative care. But she was angry that his cancer hadn’t been picked up earlier. She wondered whether he’d still be alive had there been less disruption to cancer care during Covid-19.
The fact is, thousands of diagnostic tests, therapies, and appointments with oncologists have been canceled since the pandemic began. Medical service providers have been obliged to redistribute resources.
Innumerable cancer surgeries haven’t taken place because of a lack of hospital beds and staff due to the number of Covid patients needing care. The number of referrals to see a specialist has dropped massively.
The pandemic is having a direct impact on cancer care and survival rates. Delays in identifying new cancers and the delivery of treatment translate into thousands of people for whom it will now be too late to cure their cancer. Current estimates are that the cancer-treatment backlog could take a decade to clear.
When Covid hospital patient numbers decreased earlier this year as vaccines became available, the pressure on health providers eased.
Then the Delta variant took hold.
Today, there’s once again huge pressure on ICU medical staff with the majority of incoming Covid patients having to be ventilated. Belfast Health Trust’s medical director says this is a “direct effect” of people not getting vaccinated and the consequent rise in infections.
If you don’t know someone who has cancer, you may wonder how this affects you personally.
Sadly, like Covid-19, cancer touches us all in one way or another. Chances are that if you don’t get cancer, someone close to you will.
In the UK, 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the USA, over 1,800,000 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2020 and over 600,000 will die from the disease, including children and teenagers.
Did you know that even though childhood cancer is rare it’s nonetheless the leading cause of death by disease for children in the US and UK? That there are about 100 forms of childhood cancers?
Gareth Kirk, Chief Executive of Action Cancer says it’s “cruel” to deny patients treatment. I agree.
Data for 2020 points to lives lost. At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, the screenings in the USA for breast, colon, and lung cancers were lower by 85%, 75%, and 56% respectively when compared to 2019. When Covid numbers rise, diagnostic and surgical cancer care decreases.
The invisible impact of Covid is real and it’s costing lives. According to JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics, the reduction in medical services will increase cancer deaths for years to come.
So, how do we help?
Donate to cancer research. Volunteer at cancer centers. And right now help alleviate the medical crisis – by getting vaccinated.
As Julie and I hugged goodbye, she said:
“Cancer can happen to anyone. No one should suffer how Michael did, nor live with the grief that my mother and I must now endure. We owe it not only to ourselves and our family to be protected from Covid but also to the wider community. Please get the jab.”