FHS researchers study the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients
For nearly everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic has loomed over our lives for a year. While the pandemic has significantly impacted the lives of even the healthiest amongst us, there are certain populations who have been particularly vulnerable to its impacts. And often, this has been in ways that we least expect it.
Last spring, researchers in the Faculty of Health Sciences pivoted and turned their focus to all areas of COVID-19, from basic scientists working to better understand the virus to clinician scientists exploring how the training of health professionals is being impacted in real time. Researchers also looked at the many and varied challenges faced by vulnerable populations. With an eye to better understanding the impact on patients with cancer, Drs. Timothy Hanna and Jacqueline Galica undertook studies that looked at how care has shifted as a result of the pandemic and how these changes have impacted patient outcomes.
In November of 2020, Dr. Hanna published a paper in the British Medical Journal highlighting the significant impact that delays in cancer treatment can have on mortality. The result of a collaboration between faculty at Queen’s University and King’s College London, the study shows that when cancer treatment is delayed by even a single month, there is a significant impact on the chance of death. In many cases this delay results in a 6 to 13% higher chance of death. Dr. Hanna undertook this research in response to many countries making the decision to delay surgeries and other medical procedures in order to care for an influx of patients affected with COVID-19. “These delays are incredibly detrimental to cancer patients,” says Dr. Hanna who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Oncology. “This study was truly a team collaboration and we hope that it leads to policies that minimize system-level delays in cancer treatment around the world.”
Dr. Galica, who is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing, aimed to better understand how older cancer survivors are coping during the pandemic. Her team surveyed and interviewed 30 former cancer patients, who are over the age of 60 and had been discharged within the last year. Fortunately, the results of Dr. Galica’s research have been more uplifting, as most of the individuals studied believed that previous experiences throughout their lives, including their battle with cancer, have enabled them to cope relatively well. Some participants even drew connections between living with a weakened immune system during their cancer treatment, and the manner in which they are forced to limit their contact from others during the pandemic.
In their study, Dr. Galica’s team asked participants to make recommendations on how they believe their care could have been improved. “Our participants made astute observations, and this led to helpful recommendations,” says Dr. Galica. “They mentioned things such as how we could enhance the baseline information that patients were provided with, since the sudden change in care provisions left some individuals feeling uninformed. Patients also showed a new appreciation for how technology can be integrated into their healthcare and encouraged we do more of this moving forward.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly challenged our healthcare system, it has also provided important opportunities to learn and grow. Through their research, both Drs. Hanna and Galica are using their research capacity to improve the care received by a population which is especially vulnerable during this time. Moving forward, their takeaways have the potential to impact cancer treatment in Kingston and around the world.
Drs. Hanna and Galica are both researchers and educators in the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute. Dr. Hanna is an Associate Professor in the Department of Oncology and is cross appointed to the Department of Public Health Sciences. Dr. Galica is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing, and her research looks at the psychosocial impacts of cancer.