Doctor and patient
Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A new study published in Lancet Oncology has found that one in seven cancer patients missed out on planned surgery as a result of lockdown.

Sarcoma UK is co-funding COVID-Surg Cancer, an international collaborative study, to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the care of cancer patients who require surgery. 

The study has collected data from over 20,000 patients with 15 common cancer types, including sarcoma, across 61 countries. Most patients did not suffer any short-term consequences from missing their surgery, but many will have to be more closely monitored going forward to ensure their cancer does not spread. We know that missing or delaying vital cancer treatment has hugely affected patients’ mental health and quality of life. The number of patients missing out on surgery depended on the extent of the lockdown restrictions, with only 0.6% missing treatment in periods where restrictions were looser.

These results are particularly significant for sarcoma patients, for whom surgery is often the first and only line of treatment available.
'Sarcoma patients are particularly vulnerable due to the lack of treatments alternative to surgery such as chemotherapy,’ says Mr Anant Desai, consultant surgeon at the University of Birmingham. 'In addition, sarcoma surgery is often complex involving a large team of surgical, critical care, anaesthesia, nursing and allied healthcare professionals. We found that sarcoma patients are less likely to have their elective surgery than patients with breast, colon or head and neck cancers.'

A staggering 21 million elective operations were cancelled around the world in the wake of COVID-19. Whilst lockdowns are essential for protecting public health, we know that COVID-19 has had a massive impact on sarcoma patients’ care. With sarcoma clinical teams diverted to other healthcare services, we have heard from and supported many sarcoma patients concerned about cancelled appointments. The Sarcoma UK Support Line saw a 40% increase in contacts from patients who were worried about their sarcoma returning. 

However, these newly published results have identified particular areas in the healthcare system which can be strengthened. The research teams behind the study are calling for changes such as putting protected critical care beds and additional surge capacity in place. They say this should allow vital elective surgery to continue safely in the event of another health emergency.

'This study provides important evidence to support increased funding for COVID-protected areas during the pandemic recovery period, to ensure each cancer patient can access timely and safe surgical care when they need it,’ says Dr James Glasbey, study lead at the University of Birmingham. 'The message for NHS patients now is that hospitals have reopened and have set up systems to ensure your surgery can be delivered safely.'

'For sarcoma patients, whose treatment options are often restricted to surgery, these findings will be worrying,' says Dr Sorrel Bickley, Director of Research, Policy and Support at Sarcoma UK. 'We hope that these results can be used positively to ensure that patients are better supported in the future. We are proud to be co-funding this important work and its findings will have huge implications for sarcoma patients.'

COVIDSurg Collaborative, Effect of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown on planned cancer surgery for 15 tumour types in 61 countries: an international, prospective, cohort study. Lancet Oncology 2021.