On July 23rd, Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, director of the University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center, Cathy Bradley, PhD, deputy director of the CU Cancer Center, James DeGregori, PhD, deputy director of the CU Cancer Center, took part in a virtual panel that highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on cancer as well as the ways the CU Cancer Center is redefining cancer care. The panel was moderated by Don Elliman, Chancellor of the Anschutz Medical Campus.
COVID-19 Impacts at the CU Cancer Center
The panel started by recognizing the severe impact that COVID-19 has had on the United States and the entire world.
“I look forward to a time when there will be a vaccine for COVID-19. But I think we have a lot more work to do with cancer,” says Schulick. “I hope one day in the not too distant future that we will be able to conquer a lot of the cancers that Coloradans and Americans suffer from.”
Fortunately, cancer care at the CU Cancer Center was not heavily impacted even during the peak of COVID-19 in Colorado. Infusions stayed at about 98 percent of pre-COVID levels while cancer-related surgeries dropped to about 60 percent of pre-COVID levels. Now, the cancer center is at about 110 percent of pre-COVID levels.
COVID-19 Impact on Cancer Diagnoses
While the cancer center was lucky enough to not be severely impacted, the same can not be said for the general public in Colorado.
“With a rise in unemployment comes a rise in people who are uninsured,” explains Bradley. “Because of this people are no longer seeking health care. Screening behavior has stopped nearly altogether because that is not a necessary treatment.”
Models are predicting that there will be at least an additional 10,000 cancer related deaths in 2020 due to a lack of preventative screening procedures such as mammograms and colonoscopies.
“We also expect an increase in late-stage diagnoses that we would not otherwise have, especially in rural areas of our state,” says Bradley.
Bradley recently received a grant to study the impact of COVID-19 and cancer diagnoses in terms of missed cases, late-stage disease and increased mortality.
COVID-19 and Cancer Research Impacts
DeGregori focused on the impact of COVID-19 and cancer related research.
“We took a hit, but it wasn’t ground zero,” says DeGregori. “Researchers are really resilient and innovative. They used their time wisely. For example, they went through large datasets, wrote manuscripts, brainstormed with their colleagues…we are not three months behind in research but instead at a different spot in research. I am hoping that we can emerge from this with better directions to better address the problems that cancer presents.”
Silver Linings During A Global Pandemic
Despite the challenges that have come from COVID-19, CU Cancer Center leadership has found silver linings.
“The use of Telehealth will diminish disparities,” says Bradley. “It gives access to people who could not come here otherwise. We have been able to give greater care to a larger number of people with the increased use of that technology.”
“Our labs rose to the occasion,” DeGregori continues. “Our labs and experts took their knowledge and were able to apply it to COVID-19. Their research has really made an impact, for example by creating a protein that could be used in an anti-body test developed on campus.”
“I think this pandemic has taught us the importance of hospitals and health care institutions,” says Schulick. “Obviously without great health care we would be in deep trouble. Also, the importance of funding for research has been put at the top. Without research, there is no cure for COVID-19. Without research, we won’t make progress with cancer. I think now all the governments and all the institutions know how important funding of research is.”
There is no question that the COVID-19 era is unprecendented. In these trying times CU Cancer Center leadership wants Coloradans to know that there is no need to get on a plane to get world-class care.
“There is no reason for you to go anywhere else”, says Schulick. “You can receive the best cancer care here.”