As we battle the pandemic, we should remember that cancer kills 7,000 Canadians every month and put the same effort into reducing that sad toll.
In the three months since COVID-19 started shutting down the country, about 8,000 Canadians have died from the disease. That’s a terrible toll and loss. However, during that same period more than 20,000 Canadians died of cancer.
Those cancer deaths were not reported in live-broadcast daily press briefings or tallied up on TV graphics and websites. They just happened – as they have for decades – in the background of our busy lives, the drip-drip of something inevitable and unchangeable.
It doesn’t have to be like that, and it should not.
We need political and societal determination to change things; the fight against COVID-19 could be a template. Not in terms of shutting down the economy but in making it a societal imperative to flatten the cancer curve and reduce suffering, hospitalizations and deaths.
Clearly, we do have the power to take on big medical challenges and change the expected outcome. As a society, we did not accept the idea of tens of thousands of Canadians dying from COVID-19. At the same time, however, we seem willing to accept as inevitable that more than 80,000 Canadians will die of cancer this year.
It’s not because the fight against cancer is hopeless – far from it. We have many remarkable screening tools and treatments at our disposal. What we lack, however, is the collective will to make the investments and commitments necessary to bend the cancer curve as we are with COVID-19.
Yes, we have made progress against cancer in recent years. Survival rates have risen slowly; screening and detection have improved. Still, one out of every two Canadians will get cancer and one out of four will die from it. We need to do more.
We should give cancer the same type of priority as COVID-19 in our health spending and public health efforts. Let’s reach our 90% target for vaccination against cervical cancer instead of languishing at 67% as we are now (achieving this alone would cause a 21% reduction in cervical cancer deaths).
We need to shorten markedly the time from initial cancer symptoms until therapy is started. Canadians die because of these delays. The reality is that 4% of patients with advanced incurable lung cancer will die for every week that initiation of effective therapy is delayed, which is commonly several weeks or longer. For many cancers, delays mean the cancer may spread and become incurable when it might otherwise have been curable. Fixing this does not mean spending more. It means getting greater benefit from the same investments by doing drug, radiation and surgical treatments promptly.
Let’s embrace the amazing new treatments that are becoming available and unequivocally prolong life expectancy, alleviate suffering and improve quality of life. We Canadians are very smug about our healthcare system. We should not be. While insured Americans have access to these effective new therapies, most Canadians are like uninsured Americans who do not have access. How does that make us better?
Thousands of Canadian life-years are lost while we await approval and funding for evidence-based, effective new therapies that are already the standard of care in the U.S. And even once they are funded here, some Canadians younger than 65 may be out of luck since their provincial system may only cover them for the elderly.
Let’s make these therapies as readily available to all Canadians as a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine surely will be soon. This will take reform of the regulatory approval system, clinical research and our drug funding systems, changes that have already been laid out in peer-reviewed medical papers.
It will take commitment and investment, but it won’t break us as a society. If we have learned one thing from COVID-19, it is that we can do great and dramatic things if we really want to. What an amazing legacy we would build from the misery of COVID-19 if it shows us the way to work together to defeat cancer, too.
Dr. David J. Stewart is an oncologist who returned from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2011 to the Division of Medical Oncology at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa. His primary clinical focus is the treatment of advanced lung cancer.
John-Peter Bradford is CEO of LSTN, the Life-Saving Therapies Network, which is dedicated to getting faster access to better treatments for people with lethal diseases, and a former member of the Research Advisory Committee of the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer. A passionate patient advocate, he is a cancer survivor and was a caregiver for his wife who died from cancer. www.lifesavingtherapies.com
 Government of Canada, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Outbreak update, Current Situation: Count of Deaths, 7,835 as of June 8, 2020. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection.html?topic=tilelink
 Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian cancer statistics at a glance – Incidence and mortality, 83,300 total deaths from cancer expected in 2020 divided by 12 = 6,942/month. https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/cancer-statistics-at-a-glance/?region=qc
 Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian cancer statistics at a glance – Incidence and mortality, https://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/cancer-statistics-at-a-glance/?region=qc
 Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, 2018 Cancer System Performance Report: https://content.cancerview.ca/download/cv/quality_and_planning/system_performance/documents/2018_cancer_system_performance_report_enpdf?attachment=0&utm_source=Landing Page&utm_medium=Full Report&utm_campaign=Omnibus
 Gotfrit J et al. Potential Life-Years Lost: The Impact of the Cancer Drug Regulatory and Funding Process in Canada. Oncologist. 2020 Jan;25(1):e130-e137