GI cancers can’t wait during COVID-19

As states across Australia are opening up and activities are resuming, experts are urging the community not to forget the importance of cancer testing or screening during COVID-19. Reports showed cancer referrals at major oncology centres fell during the first half of this year.

In April, it was reported that cancer referrals at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne had fallen by a third compared to April 2019. At the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney, they had fallen by 25%.

Professor Declan Murphy, Director of genito-urinary oncology at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, said, “What the trend tells us is that people are not going into primary care. They are not seeing their doctors or getting their blood tests done, getting that swab or that colonoscopy. The exact sort of stuff that creates referrals into the cancer centre is just not being done.”

For some cancers, which are slow growing, it is unlikely there will be major consequences. However, for other cancers which grow quickly or are difficult to diagnose, early detection is critical. This includes several GI cancers, including stomach and oesophageal cancers.

In Australia, cancer services have not been severely impacted by COVID-19. Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, says, “We haven’t had any shutting down in Australia of acute surgery or other treatments like that, as they’ve seen in the US and UK.”

Professor Aranda has urged people to take part in any screening programs they may be eligible for, and report any worrying symptoms to their doctor as soon as possible. “It’s safe to get healthcare,” she says.

Geoff Parnell, an oesophageal cancer survivor and a member of the GI Cancer Institute’s Consumer Advisory Panel, says that the idea that people are not following up when experiencing symptoms is concerning.

“Early diagnosis is so critical from a GI cancer viewpoint, where two weeks or four weeks or six weeks can make all the difference,” he says.

“I guess that was emphasised in my own scenario, where I didn’t think I had anything wrong with me at all. To hear the doctor say that I was being booked in for an operation in the next three weeks – at first I thought it couldn’t be that serious. But he said if I’d gone on, potentially in two years I wouldn’t be here.

That’s the scary thing if people aren’t actually going to the doctor and getting tested, because a few weeks can make a big difference depending on the stage of the disease.”

What to do if you notice new symptoms

You can find out more about GI cancers and their signs and symptoms here.

If you are experiencing symptoms, or if something doesn’t feel right, consult your general practitioner on what to do next.

For more information on cancer screening and treatment during COVID-19, Cancer Australia has a dedicated web section providing relevant, evidence-based information for people with cancer and health professionals.