Cancer tests and operations dropped 50 per cent during lockdown, but the disease didn’t rest

For 60-year-old Geoff Voller, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year.

In between long stretches of rest and trying to eat regular meals for which he has no appetite, his days are broken up by one appointment after the other: chemotherapy, radiation, blood tests, speech therapy, endless check-ups with doctors, physiotherapy — the list goes on.

“I’m about two thirds of the way through chemo and radiotherapy. And I have to confess to feeling pretty ordinary,” he said.

Earlier this year Mr Voller got the shock diagnosis of stage four jaw cancer — and his world changed.

“Everything revolves around having treatments now,” he told 7.30.

With the risk of coronavirus, it has proven an even tougher time than usual to be a cancer patient.

“I’m in isolation because I’m immunosuppressed so I can’t go anywhere or, or do anything,” he said.

It started with a pain in his gum in December. His dentist initially thought it was a minor issue caused by food getting stuck between his teeth. As the lockdown in March set in, Mr Voller’s pain intensified but dentists were closed for everything but emergencies, so he put up with the pain until he was referred to a specialist in May.

His wisdom teeth were removed in June. It was then discovered he had a tumour — a squamous cell carcinoma in his jaw. It was a very aggressive, very rare, stage four cancer.

Mr Voller was rushed into surgery at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer treatment centre in Sydney to remove the entire left side of his jaw and eight hours later he emerged with a new jaw, fashioned from part of his fibula leg bone. He is now undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.

‘A 30 to 50 per cent drop in tests and operations’

A woman wearing a pink jacket and round spectacle.
Professor Dorothy Keefe says people should not put off seeing a doctor.(ABC News: Stephen Opie)

Mr Voller is one of tens of thousands of Australians who had the diagnosis or treatment of their cancer delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic and experts warn the effects in the coming months could be significant.

Data provided to 7.30 exclusively by Cancer Australia — the Federal Government’s peak cancer body — reveals substantial drops in tests that diagnose three of the most common cancers in Australia between March and April, at the height of national lockdowns, as well as a drop in treatments for them.

“There was a 30 to 50 per cent drop in tests and operations,” Cancer Australia CEO Professor Dorothy Keefe told 7.30.

The decrease in cancer diagnoses had been predicted for months in media reports and by frontline experts around the country, but this is the very first time it has been confirmed by data.

The data in the report was compared to that of the previous year and showed the decrease was greater than seasonal variations over the same period in 2019.

Non-surgical treatments for skin cancers fell by 30 per cent from this March to April, but then started to recover in June, as the lockdown restrictions eased.

Imaging procedures for the detection of breast cancers fell by 37 per cent between March and April, but started to recover in June. Breast biopsies fell by a quarter nationally in the March-April period.

And there was a similar trend for colon cancer: colonoscopies fell by 55 per cent from March to April. Numbers have started to recover but they are still lower than last year.

Professor Keefe told 7.30 it was concerning that cancers that were not diagnosed during lockdown may be picked up later “and they may not be as treatable”.

The government organisation is urging people with any symptoms that could point to cancer to see their doctor.

“It’s likely the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria might lead to more delays in cancer diagnoses — although it is too early for the data to show that yet,” she said.

“It is concerning from a public health perspective for Australia.”

Separate from this report, Cancer Council Victoria told 7.30 that, compared to 2019 figures, they had seen a 13 per cent decline in cancer pathology notifications for tumours from April to the end of July this year — just before that state’s second lockdown.

‘You really do need to go to the doctor’

People walk down a busy section of Swanston Street in Melbourne, all wearing face masks.
Some people have been fearful of visiting the doctor during the coronavirus pandemic.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

The reason for the drop in diagnoses is thought to be fear and uncertainty people felt during the March-April lockdown and a reluctance to see a doctor out of a fear of catching COVID-19 or of burdening the health system, Professor Keefe said.

She said while the lockdown was “absolutely vital” it was having unintended consequences.

“I think there are blocks at every level of a system like ours,” she said.

“There’s the patient feeling they don’t want to go out and they don’t want to risk their health by going to see a doctor. I think the doctors were concerned about whether the [COVID-19] infection was going to be spread by people coming in and out of surgeries. Hospitals were concerned about whether they’d be able to cope with the workload and so some procedures were reduced or stopped for a while.

Cancer Australia hoped to look at data for other cancers in the coming months, Professor Keefe said, but believed “it is highly likely that there were delays in diagnoses of all cancers”.

‘Don’t let COVID get in the way’

A man sits in a chair and a woman stands with her hand on his shoulder.
Geoff Voller, pictured with wife Jen, says his prognosis is “quite good”.(Supplied: Chris O’Brien Lifehouse)

Mr Voller has no feeling on the left side of his face and no teeth on the left lower jaw for now, and has also temporarily lost his sense of taste.

But he said it was all a small price to pay for getting rid of the aggressive cancer that could easily have spread to his brain.

“It’s a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. But I’m certainly lucky in that it was caught just in the nick of time.”

He has been told his prognosis is “quite good”.

“With cancer, you never quite know. It’s one of those great uncertainties,” he said.

Mr Voller’s message for others delaying treatment is clear: “Don’t wait.”

“If you’ve got pain, don’t assume that it’s nothing and make sure that you investigate.

“Don’t let COVID get in the way of you seeing a doctor because the time that you spend waiting to get something done could be the difference between life or death.”

Watch this story tonight on 7.30.