New Normal, Same Cancer (Guest blog)

Throughout history, society has confronted many great health challenges and while COVID-19 won’t be the last threat we face, the outcome of the global pandemic and our emerging ‘new normal’ is a turning point for all of us working in oncology as we look ahead and ask ourselves – what will this ‘new normal’ mean for the future of cancer care? 

The full impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients may not be fully understood for many months or perhaps even years. We know that by the third quarter of 2020, cancer diagnoses had fallen by approximately 40% [i],[ii],[iii],[iv] as hospital capacity and public fear of contracting coronavirus at hospitals delayed diagnosis. Additionally, many patients with diagnosed cancer discontinued treatment for many reasons. These included postponed appointments and fewer screening clinics as healthcare systems focused on treating COVID-19 patients and reducing the risk of spreading the virus [v],[vi].

Cancer Research UK recently reported that from March 2020, an estimated 3 million people did not receive a screening invitation in the UK alone, and between March and September 350,000 fewer people than usual had a referral for ‘fast-track’ investigations [vii]. Assume a similar data set across the world, and we truly start to see the impact that COVID-19 is having on the global population.

We are still adapting to living in a new environment, but cancer is not going to wait. The earlier we can detect and treat cancer, the closer we are to cure, and the events of 2020 have reinforced just how important early intervention can be. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, I’m proud to say that the oncology community has persevered and our collective work to bring innovation and new treatments to patients has not halted. We’ve been agile and moved quickly to launch a range of new strategies in cancer care aimed at lessening the impact of COVID-19 on patient outcomes.

We have embraced our responsibility to continue to care for our current patients while maintaining our momentum to improve screening rates and drive ever-earlier diagnoses. We have also elevated our collaboration with scientific societies, experts, governments and health institutions to help maintain optimal patient care. For example, we have channelled resource into identifying an alternative to healthcare facility-based treatment and testing. Also, prior to the pandemic, we began working on HAYA, an integrated oncology care management platform to support continuity of care and connectivity between healthcare professionals and patients. We accelerated the deployment of HAYA, which is now available across multiple countries in Europe.  

Also, as concern that patient care has diminished since the start of the pandemic, we recently announced the launch of ‘New Normal, Same Cancer’. New Normal, Same Cancer, co-created with patient coalitions representing millions of patients worldwide, encourages people to prioritise a return to screening services, resume treatment and to not delay seeing a doctor with any concerns around potential symptoms or if routine checks were missed. To date, we have seen it successfully rolled out in numerous languages across 42 countries, including the US, the Netherlands, Canada, UK, France, India, numerous parts of Latin America and South Africa.

As part of the initiative, we are also calling on healthcare leaders and policymakers to ensure low-COVID-risk pathways are available for patients to seek screening and care. We need sufficient diagnostic and treatment capacity to meet the projected needs of patients. Collaboration by the global community will help. But most urgently, we must continue to encourage people to continue testing and to seek immediate medical attention if they have any symptoms.

If we can leave people with one message, it is simply: Don’t wait. Contact your doctor. Get checked. Cancer remains a global challenge and we must embrace the progress made in the new normal to defeat the same cancer.

[i] De Vincentiis L, Carr RA, Mariani MP, et al. (2020), Cancer diagnostic rates during the 2020 ‘lockdown’, due to COVID-19 pandemic, compared with the 2018–2019: an audit study from cellular pathology Journal of Clinical Pathology Published Online First: 19 June 2020. doi: 10.1136/jclinpath-2020-206833.

[ii] Mahase, E., (2020). Covid-19: Urgent cancer referrals fall by 60%, showing “brutal” impact of pandemic. BMJ 2020;369:m2386.

[iii] Maringe, C., et al., (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK: a national, population-based, modelling study. The Lancet Oncology, 21(8), pp.1023-1034.

[iv] Kaufman, H., et al., (2020). Changes in the Number of US Patients With Newly Identified Cancer Before and During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic. JAMA Network Open, 2020;3(8):e2017267.

[v] Rosenbaum, L., et al., (2020). The Untold Toll — The Pandemic’s Effects on Patients without Covid-19. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(24), pp.2368-2371.

[vi] Editorial, (2020). Safeguarding cancer care in a post-COVID-19 world. The Lancet Oncology, 21(5), p.603.

[vii] Greenwood, E, et al., Consequences of COVID-19 for cancer care – a CRUK perspective. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology. Available at: [Last accessed: December 2020].

Françoise Bartoli

Vice President, Head of Europe and Canada Region, Oncology Business, AstraZeneca.  Françoise Bartoli is leading the...
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