On 3 February, the eve of World Cancer Day, cancer specialists said that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the cancer burden in India in the last two years.
Lockdowns and restrictions on movement during the pandemic combined with the fear of contracting COVID have prevented most patients from accessing cancer care.
Non-communicable diseases account for nearly 63 percent of all deaths in India, and cancer at 9 percent, is one of the leading causes.
As many as 1,392,179 people in India had cancer in 2020, and the five most common sites of the disease were the breast, head, neck, uterus, and lung.
Specialists point out that 94.1 in every 100,000 men are cancer patients in India, and this number increases to 103.6 in every 100,000 women.
They feel that India needs to take a proactive approach towards reducing this burden.
"India is a low-middle income nation, and there is a significant increase in cancer incidence. Most patients are coming in with advanced and metastatic disease because of a lack of awareness. The government has taken the necessary action to create awareness already. But more is needed at the village and district headquarters level, like online education and the creation of healthcare teams to tackle this problem."Dr Madhu Devarasetty, Senior Consultant Surgical Oncologist, KIMS Hospitals
According to a Lancet study, the number of people availing cancer services like new patient registrations, outpatient services, admissions to hospitals, and major cancer surgeries, have all fallen in India starting March 2020.
Lockdowns and restrictions on movement and the fear of contracting COVID have prevented many from accessing cancer care.
Apart from this, some hospitals had to be converted to COVID centres and with several hospital staff contracting COVID themselves, this reduced the resources available for cancer care.
"The fear of COVID-19 has kept many patients at home and when they do come to us, their cancer is at an advanced stage or with multiple uncontrolled comorbidities. I request our government to develop applications for spreading cancer awareness. The government could also use this data in tackling other related health complications that happen with cancer."Dr M Srinivas Reddy, Senior Consultant Surgical Oncologist, American Institute of Oncology
Dr Reddy adds that screening should be prioritized for cancer, like it is done for infectious diseases.
Dr. Vaibhav Chaudhary, a Consultant with the Oncology Department at Nagpur's Wockhardt Hospital says that awareness, early diagnosis, and treatment are the three key means to prevent or treat cancer in people.
"Unless people come in for early diagnosis and treatment, which only happens with awareness about the risks, cancer burden cannot be reduced in the country. Since early 2020, we have noticed that many patients who are at risk of developing a cancer delayed seeking medical attention. It is important that cancer patients and those who have a higher cancer risk seek medical attention promptly to beat cancer."Dr. Vaibhav Chaudhary, Consultant, Oncology Department, Wockhardt Hospital
Commenting on the spread of cancer in recent times, Dr. Srikanth Soma, Consultant Surgical Oncologist, SLG Hospital said many factors like consumption of tobacco, unhealthy dietary practices, and poor hygiene are possible reasons for the spread of cancer in the country.
"In addition to this, hereditary factors can also increase cancer risk, especially in women. While there are means to tackle these problems efficiently, a lack of awareness is a major challenge in doing so."
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