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COVID-19 and Cancer: What we know and don’t know

As per Globocan data, cancer was directly responsible for 8.5 lakh deaths in India in 2020, nearly double the number killed from COVID19. By 2026, as a result of the changes in population dynamics, cancer mortality is predicted to reach 10 lakhs.

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Early detection is the single strongest weapon we have against the disease, as we've realized over time.

By Dr. Fahad Afzal,

COVID19 has been identified as the underlying cause of death in 4.99 lakh Indians since the beginning of the pandemic till February 2022. COVID19 has risen to become one of the country’s main causes of death as a result of this figure. However, as pandemic-related stories continue to dominate the news, another murderer is ravaging the country as it always has, and it is nearly twice as lethal. And there you have it, the other Big C. Let us have a look at Cancer and COVID19 on the occasion of World Cancer Day.

As per Globocan data, cancer was directly responsible for 8.5 lakh deaths in India in 2020, nearly double the number killed from COVID19. By 2026, as a result of the changes in population dynamics, cancer mortality is predicted to reach 10 lakhs.

Cancer does not have to be that lethal.

Early detection is the single strongest weapon we have against the disease, as we’ve realized over time. Early detection methods for the five cancer types that physicians can screen for — breast, cervix, prostate, lung, and colon — have helped to significantly reduce death rates over the last 30 years. There was a 32% decline in cancer fatalities from 1991 to 2019, saving lakhs of lives. While early identification isn’t the sole cause of the shift, it surely helps. Early-stage breast and prostate cancer patients, for example, enjoy survival rates of 98 percent to 100 percent in the first five years, compared to 28 percent for breast and 29 percent for prostate cancer patients with late-stage diagnoses.

Unfortunately, lakhs of Indians who have one of the more than 100 types of cancer for which we do not yet have early detection tools are still at risk of death. Ovarian cancer patients, for example, are often unaware they have the disease until it has progressed to stage three or later, resulting in extremely low survival rates. On the other hand, ovarian cancer has a five-year chance of survival of more than 90% if detected early. Seven out of ten cancer deaths in India occur as a result of alterations for which we lack screening tools.

However, there is reason to be hopeful.

A number of firms are working on blood-based early cancer detection assays. One blood test, designed to supplement existing screenings, has demonstrated the ability to detect more than 50 forms of cancer with a single blood sample, reducing the need for patients to endure invasive and costly diagnostic testing. According to a recent study published in a top cancer journal, one particular blood test might accurately detect 44 percent of cancers between stages one and three, across numerous dangerous cancer types, with a false alarm rate of less than 1%.

This new set of blood tests has the potential to greatly improve a physician’s ability to diagnose whether or not a patient has cancer and if it is still in its early stages. Availability of these tests would certainly reduce a patient’s worry that a cancer diagnosis means they’re doomed, pushing them to seek treatment early and improve their overall outcome. Early detection blood tests have the potential to be one of the most transformative breakthroughs in the fight against cancer.

Currently, only a small number of patients have access to some of these blood-based early detection diagnostics. The tests, however, have not yet been approved by the DCGI, and thus are not covered by private insurance companies. However, as long as successful clinical trials and pilot studies are conducted, it will only be a question of time before they are approved and covered under mediclaim.

Incorporating early cancer detection tools and putting in place a framework to increase access will position the country to radically rethink how we attack the disease and, possibly, eradicate it one day. The recent pandemic has uncovered our lack of foresight, which has resulted in a public health crisis that many experts had predicted. With cancer, we don’t have to make the same mistake again.

(The author is Consultant Medical Oncologist, Jaslok Hospital. The article is for informational purposes only. Please consult medical experts and health professionals before starting any therapy, medication and/or remedy. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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