Corona measures have a psychological and medical impact on cancer patients

12 October 2020
For cancer patients and their environment, the impact of the coronavirus is becoming more and more heavy to bear, both psychologically and medically. Physicians and psychologists are seeing more and more early modified therapies, serious complaints of anxiety and depression and postponed diagnoses.

As is customary every year, UZ Leuven staff will be wearing a yellow ribbon during the Week against Cancer, to express their support for all cancer patients.  

Since mid March the coronavirus and the subsequent restrictions has had an enormous impact on our lives. For cancer patients this impact is especially hard as it comes on top of their own disease. Patients, both at home and in the hospital, are have to deal with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and world-weariness. Also their next of kin ask more frequently for psychological help.

Drastic decisions

Hadi Waelkens, diensthoofd psychologen in UZ Leuven and as a psychologist-sexologist she is the point of contact for patients with digestive system cancers, has noticed that patients question their treatment more often. Hadi: "It is striking that seriously ill patients want to quit their treatment sooner and wish to return home as a palliative patient. But also patients at the start of their treatment trajectory, quit sooner. At this moment, patients are not up for a heavy operation and long therapy. Their lives have already been limited in such a way by all the corona troubles that they really don't feel like adding to it. These are decisions with tremendous consequences."

Lonely at the end

Cancer patients staying in the hospital get more lonely because of the limited visiting arrangements. Hadi: “People tend to worry more when they are alone. This paves the way for anxiety and depression. I have been working with oncological patients for over 12 years, and in that time I have maybe seen one patient with claustrophobia. Now I'm seeing five people with claustrophobic symptoms in a month's time. The walls close in on them.” Because of this, supporting patients in their lonely and difficult moments became a much bigger part of the care providers' jobs.

It gets very difficult if you know that the last part of your life may be lonely.
Hadi Waelkens, psychologist at UZ Leuven

On the other hand, there are also the patients at home, who are gradually isolating themselves for fear of getting infected when they are outside. “The autumn brings another difficult period, beacuse some people are already more susceptible to winter depression and a lack of light”, Hadi says. “Most oncological patients will also consciously reflect on a what is important to them and how they want to spend the limited time they have got left. It gets especially hard if you know that the last part of your life may end up lonely.”

Fear of contamination

The corona pandemic confronts the family and next of kin of cancer patients with additional difficulties.The limited visiting arrangements is the cause of discussions and often family members develop a fear of contamination. A daughter who continuously washed and disinfected her hands until she had open wounds for fear of infecting her sick father, is only one example.

Medical impact

In the month April, figures from the Stichting Kankerregister have shown that the number of cancer diagnoses in our country were reduced with almost half as opposed to the same period last year. The reduction is the consequence of various factors, amongst other the temporary stop of population tests into cervical, breast and colon cance and the fear of getting infected, causing people with complaints to go to the doctor or hospital less quickly. Oncological care continued in a safe manner, but less people showed up.

It is extremely important that people know that we're doing everything to ensure that cancer patients continue to receive the same high-quality care.
prof. dr. Michel Delforge, haematologist at UZ Leuven and chairman of the Leuven Cancer Institute

Prof. dr. Michel Delforge, haematologist at UZ Leuven and chairmant of the Leuven Cancer Institute has noticed that this fear and reluctance is still present in the population. “Despite all measures that were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a lot of patients and their relatives are scared to come to the hospital,” professor Delforge says. “In case of a cancer diagnois, it can have far-reaching consequences if someone with complaints waits longer to seek medical help. In addition, some patients make a conscious decision to come to the hospital less often, compromising the the accuracy of the follow-up. It is extremely important that people know we're doing everything in our power to ensure the same care high-quality for cancer patients.” Statistical research into the impact of the coronavirus on the number of cancer diagnoses and into the precise consequences of the delayed diagnoses is ongoing.

Kick-off Week against Cancer

On Monday 12 October the Week against Cancer kicks off in UZ Leuven. Frank Deboosere, VRT weather man and Kom op tegen Kanker campaign leader, will be starting the campaign with a visit to the Gasthuisberg campus. He will be talking to a number of care providers about cancer and oncological care in times of corona. In the research building he will meet up with students involved in the Week against Cancer campaign and he will be meeting young cancer researchers.

As is customary every year, UZ Leuven staff will be wearing a yellow ribbon during the Week against Cancer, to express their support for all cancer patients. Distributing ribbons to visitors and patients is not possible this year, which is why we'll be putting some life-size yellow ribbons all over the hospital.

Last edit: 16 October 2020