Kolkata: The pandemic has affected medical care of non-Covid patients, hitting those suffering from cancer the hardest, said healthcare experts. With a sharp drop in Covid cases, gradual lifting of travel restrictions and hospitals switching focus on non-Covid treatment, many cancer patients have started to throng hospitals across the city. But many have been forced to return at an advanced, inoperative stage, and doctors have had to offer palliative care instead of curative therapy.
“We are seeing many patients who are at an inoperative stage, which will compromise treatment outcome and push up expenses,” said senior radiation oncologist Subir Ganguly of Apollo Multispeciality Hospital.
Ganguly cited the example of a patient from Singur who was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer a few days ago. The middle-aged woman had noticed a lump almost a year ago, but avoided going to a hospital because of the pandemic.
“We have lost many potentially curable cases due to the delay. It can take just three months for cancer of the tongue to progress from stage 2 to stage 4, when treatment outcome will be very poor,” said onco-surgeon Gautam Mukhopadhyay, clinical director, surgical oncology, at Peerless Hospital.
Mukhopadhyay said many cancer patients avoided hospitals partly due to the fear of contracting Covid and partly due to logistical issues.
“As far as head-and-neck cancer is concerned, about 70% patients would come seeking diagnosis and treatment at an advanced stage. But the pandemic has aggravated the situation, leaving us unable to offer curative treatment in an increasing number of cases,” said IPGMER senior head-and-neck surgery consultant Saurav Datta.
The state has kept IPGMER out of its Covid care network so the government could continue catering to non-Covid patients. Despite that, patient footfall had dropped drastically.
“While many patients detected with cancer after the pandemic did not turn up for treatment, another set of patients who had undergone surgery did not show up for chemotherapy. Now, some have developed metastasis,” said IPGMER’s professor of surgery Diptendra Sarkar, who conducts breast cancer surgeries.
Organisations like Bengal Oncology Foundation campaigned not to delay cancer treatment. Most hospitals had deferred surgeries during the first wave, taking in only emergency operations. And when they started opening all elective surgeries, the second wave came in.
“We have been treating conditions like acute chest pain and respiratory distress as emergencies. Because cancer does not throw up symptoms or pain in the early stage, we think we can delay treatment. But it can progress rapidly towards a point of no return,” said Ganguly.