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Lung cancer and COVID-19: by working together we can ensure the health and safety of patients

Nurse consultant in thoracic oncology Lavinia Magee wants nurses to encourage people to use healthcare services during the pandemic as a key message of Lung Cancer Awareness Month

Nurse consultant in thoracic oncology Lavinia Magee wants nurses to encourage people to use healthcare services during the pandemic as a key message of Lung Cancer Awareness Month

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented burden on health systems worldwide, and the devastating implications for cancer care are becoming more evident.

For many of us working in cancer in the UK, 2020 has been challenging.

As we mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we have had to adapt and react quickly to rapidly changing circumstances in the face of COVID-19. This has undoubtedly put pressure on our nursing teams.

Because of their respiratory skills, many lung cancer nurse specialists have been redeployed on COVID wards

Nurse consultant in thoracic oncology Lavinia Magee wants nurses to encourage people to use healthcare services during the pandemic as a key message of Lung Cancer Awareness Month

Woman with headscarf Woman with headscarf looking at tablet PC. Nurses need to encourage people to use healthcare services during the pandemic as a key message of Lung Cancer Awareness Month
Picture: iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented burden on health systems worldwide, and the devastating implications for cancer care are becoming more evident.

For many of us working in cancer in the UK, 2020 has been challenging.

As we mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we have had to adapt and react quickly to rapidly changing circumstances in the face of COVID-19. This has undoubtedly put pressure on our nursing teams.

Because of their respiratory skills, many lung cancer nurse specialists have been redeployed on COVID wards

In lung cancer in particular, many clinical nurse specialist (CNS) colleagues have been redeployed because of their respiratory skills and knowledge.

A survey by Lung Cancer Nursing UK, between May and July 2020, found that 28 of the 51 nurses who responded said that they or a member of their team had been redeployed, or unable to work, due to COVID-19.

However CNSs are a crucial support and advocate for patients with lung cancer pre-diagnosis, and throughout their cancer journey. Patients turn to their CNS for expert knowledge, emotional support and confidence in an ever-changing situation.

While we continue to push forward to achieve the best outcomes for patients, sadly since the pandemic began, we have seen patient referrals for lung cancer decline.

Lung cancer referrals hardest hit in England during the pandemic

In September, Cancer Research UK reported that of all cancer types, referrals for lung cancer have been hardest hit in England.

By the end of August, the number of people sent for urgent reviews and tests was about 60% of pre-lockdown figures.

Locally, a decrease in referrals was noted, but we continued with essential diagnostic procedures and surgery.

A number of factors have driven this, including reluctance of people to put pressure on the healthcare system and fear of catching the virus.

For patients with lung cancer in particular, clarifying the distinction between lung cancer and COVID-19 is challenging due to overlapping symptoms. This issue has been addressed in guidance produced by the British Thoracic Oncology Group’s clinical expert group.

‘It is now clearer than ever that while we are living in a new world, one thing has not changed – cancer does not wait’

Late referrals via GP surgeries or emergency department presentation has resulted in more patients being diagnosed with advanced cancer when their treatment options are, unfortunately, then palliative in nature.

Encourage people to talk to healthcare professionals if cancer signs or symptoms present

This is the worst-case scenario for patients, having a negative impact on their prognosis.

It is now clearer than ever that while we are living in a new world, one thing has not changed – cancer does not wait.

This has reinforced the urgency of encouraging people to talk to or visit their healthcare professionals and hospitals if signs or symptoms present.

Recently, as a board member of Lung Cancer Europe, the opportunity arose to join a steering committee to consult on a campaign by AstraZeneca called New Normal, Same Cancer.

The campaign, designed in partnership with global patient coalitions representing millions of people around the world, aims to raise awareness of the impact of COVID-19 on cancer care and to call for patients to contact their doctors and return to care services. This includes anyone who has paused treatment, missed routine checks or is experiencing symptoms that may be due to cancer.

By promoting campaign message, nurses can help improve cancer survival rates

As nurses, we play an incredibly key role in the care of patients.

Anything we can do to encourage and promote this message will be another step forward towards improving survival. We know that a delayed diagnosis can lead to poorer health outcomes, so it is important that we continue to communicate and ensure that:

  • People understand the health system is open for business.
  • Nurses encourage those on treatment or regular follow-up not to miss an appointment.

New ways of working involving adapting schedules or using telephone or video consultations in specific circumstances, in agreement with the patient, can be considered.

By working collectively during Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we can get this message across and ensure the health and safety of our lung cancer patients during the pandemic.

View our COVID-19 resources centre

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