Silent oncology units during COVID are worrying

by Frances Fitzgerald, Member of the European Parliament for Ireland and Chair of the Transforming Breast Cancer Together Initiative*

As any parent of a small child knows, a silent house is a cause for concern. When it comes to small children, silence means there is something going on, unseen and unheard. Parents know this silence usually means that chaos is about to be unleashed.

The same also applies in the world of oncology. As any oncologist will tell you, a silent clinic and a lack of patients usually means there is something going on, unseen and unheard. Over the past number of months, oncology clinics across the world have lain empty, with the number of patients with suspected cancer complaints reduced to just a trickle. And like parents, oncologists are worried about the chaos that is about to be unleashed.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, general practitioners, oncologists, radiographers and oncology nurses have noticed a significant slowdown in clinics. While in many circumstances, the priority of medical staff from all disciplines has pivoted to collectively fighting COVID-19, I know from speaking to healthcare providers that there is genuine concern and fear at the reduced numbers of cancer patients. Such a dramatic reduction suggests that people are no longer coming forward for normal complaints as they avoid leaving the house and entering medical facilities. This aversion to medical facilities is likely due to fear of contracting COVID-19.

However, those of us who are familiar with cancer diagnosis and treatment know this to be a dangerous gamble, as the longer a person goes without diagnosis and treatment, the worse the situation will be once they finally receive care. Here, the golden rule of cancer care applies: the earlier the diagnosis, the better.

The challenge is to encourage people to come forward if they suspect an illness, despite the current COVID-19 pandemic. We must build a conversation and remind people of what they already know: to recognise the signs and to go to see their doctor if they find something of concern.

Coupled with that, we must remind national governments that, whatever may come during the COVID-19 crisis, screening services should and must be considered essential services that cannot be closed again. This was a mistake that some made in the early days of the pandemic as we learned to adapt to life with the virus. However, as we learn more, we are once again reminded that cancer is a threat that can be as serious as COVID-19 for those who have it.

As such, we are in the same situation as parents with a silent house: we must be proactive to find the patients, and find out what is going on. We must do whatever it takes to avoid the unseen and unheard chaos. It is my hope that the European Commission’s soon-to-be-announced Beating Cancer Plan as well as the European Parliament’s new Committee on Cancer will consider this issue, as it will persist for at least as long as the pandemic lasts.

*Transforming Breast Cancer Together (TBCT) is an initiative aimed at improving breast cancer health services and care across Europe. TBCT brings together MEPs from different political groupings, patient groups, research bodies and pharmaceutical companies, including Lilly.

Frances Fitzgerald is an Irish MEP from Dublin. A parliamentarian for over 20 years, she served as Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) from 2016-17, one of only four women to have ever held this position. She has also served as Minister for Business, Enterprise & Innovation (2017); Minister for Justice & Equality (2014-17) and was the State’s first Minister for Children & Youth Affairs (2011-14). Prior to her election to the Dáil (Irish Parliament), Frances served as Chair of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (1988-92) and Vice President of the European Women’s Lobby.

Frances was elected to the European Parliament in 2019. She is a full member of the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) and the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee (ECON and a substitute member of the Development Committee (DEVE). Frances was elected EPP Coordinator of the FEMM Committee in July 2019.

Frances has previously served on the board of the Breast Research Foundation in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, and was also Vice Chair of Europa Donna - The European Breast Cancer Coalition.


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