As COVID-19 continues to spread like wildfire, it becomes increasingly important to tackle the growing backlog of cancer surgeries. While returning to normal is currently not an option, a lot of hospitals around the world, especially hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots, have begun implementing COVID-19 surgical pathways to help ease the surgical burden. The 2020 European Society of Surgical Oncology (ESSO)’s virtual summit opened our eyes to the inescapable fact that COVID-19 will reshape the face of surgical oncology.
Impact of COVID-19 on High-Income Regions
With the pandemic in full swing and cases ever on the rise, surgeons, particularly cancer surgeons, across the world are debating the necessities of implementing long-term change with operation scheduling, minimal person-to-person contact, and elective surgery cancellations. As expected, COVID-19 has resulted in a drastic reduction of surgical activity worldwide, with coronavirus hot spots Europe and the U.S. seeing massive reductions.
What Was the Cancer Surgery Burden in Europe’s Biggest Hotspot, Italy?
An elective oncological survey was conducted by Marco Montorsi, MD, and his team to understand how COVID-19 had affected surgical care of Italian cancer patients. The survey was sent to 54 surgical units in three stages: before, during, and after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
During the peak of the first wave, the survey identified a clear reduction in the number of cancer resections scheduled per week, alongside:
- 70% reduction in surgical beds
- 76% reduction in surgical activity
- Almost complete cancellation of outpatient surgeries
Also seen was a prolongation in the time-interval between cancer multidisciplinary team (MDT) discussions and the surgery itself. Disease biology, tumor aggressiveness, and interval from neoadjuvant treatments were the three primary criteria that defined the urgency of the surgery and thereby its need to be performed during the pandemic.
Dr. Montorsi stated that a follow-up elective survey is in the making to monitor the effects of the ongoing second wave. He explained that the aims of the second survey are “to investigate the impact of COVID-19 in surgical departments in the past months of heavy pandemic, understand outcomes of COVID-19 patients undergoing oncological surgery, and to investigate how many alternative treatments to surgery have been performed and how many of these are considered to be a bridge to surgery.”
Dr. Montorsi also highlighted that during the heat of the pandemic in Italy, surgeons tried to devise a new priority model for elective surgeries performed on cancer patients. They found that of the minimally invasive surgeries performed during the COVID-19 pandemic, liver and pancreatic cancer surgeries were vastly reduced but colorectal cancer surgery rates in Italy remained similar to previous years, showing that certain hospitals remained a safe environment to perform cancer surgeries in, if strict Personal Protective Equipment guidelines were followed.
However, as the pandemic continues to be a destructive force in the health care industry, an increasing number of surgeons are becoming unavailable to perform surgeries after contracting COVID-19. So, the large question remains, “How do we proceed?” Dr. Montorsi asked. In Italy alone, an estimated 400,000 cancer surgeries need reprogramming in the gap between the COVID-19 waves, and with more and more of the workforce becoming susceptible to COVID-19, this question really needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
How Does the U.S. Compare to Italy?
Let’s look at the big picture. The U.S is now the worst COVID-19 affected country worldwide, with a total of 13.5 million cases and 268k deaths by December 1st 2020 and climbing. It is no surprise that cancer patients are suffering more and fighting harder to survive than they have ever before. The fight is real for everyone but increasing amounts of data show that cancer patients are more vulnerable to worsened outcomes if they contract SARS-CoV-2, which includes increased need for oxygenation via ventilation and raised infection-associated mortality.
Secondly, cancer patients are getting delayed diagnoses due to the decreased availability or suspension of diagnostic and screening services. This alone is terrifying because a patient’s diagnosis for their cancer stage and grade is the only way treatment can be determined. Additionally, pre-diagnosed but un-staged cancer patients are also reluctant to be screened because they do not want to risk contracting COVID-19. This effectively means that patients are being diagnosed later and later, thereby worsening their prognosis and increasing their fight for survival by 100-fold. Thirdly, pre-determined treatment options for patients prior to COVID-19 outbreaks have been altered or cancelled altogether depending on the rate of tumor progression, to free hospital bed availability for terminal or life-threatening COVID-19 patients and to minimize exposure to vulnerable immunosuppressed individuals like cancer patients during treatment or surgery. While this is done with careful consideration by the patients’ MDT, there is no guarantee that tumor progression is unaffected when the patient is not receiving treatment or is receiving an alternative treatment.
What Are the Implications for Cancer Surgery?
Capacity for surgery has been drastically reduced as operation theatre space and ventilators have been reallocated to provide for the critical care capacity of COVID-19 patients. Moreover, reports have shown that there is increased risk for contracting COVID-19 postoperatively for any non-COVID elective surgeries, making patients, especially vulnerable ones (i.e., cancer patients, immunosuppressed, and the elderly), more reluctant to undergo surgery in COVID-19 overflow hospitals. Studies conducted in China, Europe, and North America have shown that cancer patients, particularly lung-cancer patients, who contract COVID-19 have a higher risk of mortality, increased ICU admission risk, and severe clinical effects when compared to non-cancer COVID-19 patients. Additionally, a recent meta-analysis showed that all-cause mortality was significantly higher in cancer patients when compared to non-cancer patients, and similar to previous coronavirus outbreaks, the reported mortality rate was 84% in cancer patients compared to 39% in non-cancer patients, further demonstrating the vulnerability of cancer patients to the SARS-CoV-2 infection.
As a result, most MDT’s have opted to put their patients on neoadjuvant chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or hormonal therapy as therapeutic buffers until surgery become available again. However, these options are usually not effective as primary treatment options and therefore also increase the risk of cancer-associated mortality. In order to help oncologists and cancer surgeons navigate this complex field of decisions, the American College of Surgeons “has recommended that in early stages of the pandemic, semi-elective surgery, such as for nearly obstructing colon cancers, stenting for oesophageal cancers and most gynecological cancers, should continue.” In response, health care facilities like hospitals, cancer care centers, and surgical centers are trying to rapidly reorganize elective cancer procedures to ensure that cancer patients continue to receive all the essential care while minimizing their exposure to the deadly COVID-19 infection.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a catastrophic global disruption in the field of surgical oncology, severely delayed cancer diagnoses and treatment, and halted many ground-breaking surgical clinical trials. Many studies including Dr. Montorsi’s elective oncological survey, Mehta and Goel’s COVID-19 and cancer patient outcome, Rickards et al., study on COVID-19’s impact, have repeatedly tried to objectively quantify the impact of COVID-19 on cancer care. However, with the continuous progress of this pandemic, it has become impossible to gather data and understand the real-time effects on surgical care. While models are under development to try and ease this burden, much of the work to recenter surgical oncology remains to be done.