‘I just wanted to be there for her, but COVID-19 stopped me’
When Deborah Whittingham visited her mother last summer to wish her a happy but socially distant birthday, she had no idea this would be the last time she would see her healthy.
Jan Saxon turned 73 in June when England had begun to ease its first blockade.
She would be diagnosed with cancer just seven weeks later, and she died another seven weeks after that, something Whittingham says was completely preventable had it not been for the pandemic.
It’s no secret that cancer treatments have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, but as the world’s second leading cause of death (behind heart disease), cancer is perhaps a C word that is not you get the care you need.
More than 19 million people were diagnosed with cancer worldwide in 2020, almost three million of whom are in Europe.
If those already living with the disease are taken into account and compared to the World Health Organization (WHO) findings that COVID-19 has affected cancer care in 40% of the countries surveyed, This means that millions of patients are likely to have had their treatments affected.
Nine months prior to Jan’s birthday celebrations in October 2019, the enthusiastic gardener had developed a cough. Initial tests at the hospital were clear, but she was referred for a routine check-up at a chest clinic just to be sure.
But that’s when COVID-19 started to take hold. Jan’s first two clinic appointments were canceled, and two later dates in March and April were inappropriate because they collided with her husband’s schedules for his own bladder cancer treatment.
“We were locked up and she was so terrified that my stepfather would contract COVID, or that she would contract COVID, so she wouldn’t even ask me for help or let me help,” Whittingham told Euronews. He added that private healthcare was out of the question because COVID made it available. “We tried it for both mom and stepfather, but private hospitals were under the NHS umbrella. Consultants were not treating private patients.”
After two phone consultations and a trip to a hospital, Jan had already been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. A blood clot had also been discovered, so she was given anticoagulant treatment and sent home.
“If they had discovered the cancer at this stage, it would have been treatable and the prognosis would have been positive,” Whittingham said. “They should have picked it up already in February, when the first date was canceled.
“The result would have been very different and my mom would still be with us.”
On July 28, Jan was re-admitted to the hospital, where an X-ray found a large tumor in her right lung. More tests were done and she was given five rounds of radiation therapy to reduce the growth that had started to close her throat and windpipe.
“I was only able to see her once when she was first admitted. Due to COVID, they only allowed one pre-booked visit per day and my stepdad needed to be there for her. It was completely heartbreaking, devastating; I can’t describe how useless I felt.
“I hugged her for the first time since the start of COVID, having been banned by the rules of the pandemic. We held on to each other and I hugged her, but I felt that I had let her down. Measures to protect herself from COVID had been denied. treatment of my mother and denied that our family spent together when she was struggling to receive treatment, she was so terrified that if she contracted COVID she would not survive. “
Whittingham said that at this stage, her mother had been told that her cancer was treatable, but no longer curable; although he still hoped and believed that he would eventually recover.
“I can’t express how terrible this situation was. I just wanted to be there for her, but COVID prevented it. None of my brothers were able to see her before she died. They hadn’t seen her since Christmas.”
Jan was released from the hospital on September 11, at which point doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to her spine, adrenal glands, lymph nodes and bones. “I found her so frail and haggard; she had the dark, sunken eyes of a very sick person. It was completely shocking.”
Four days later, Whittingham was able to visit her mother, where they agreed, along with her stepfather, that she would stay with them to help. He went home that day to pack a suitcase and come back the next morning, but his stepfather called later and said Jan had passed away during the night.
‘I delayed my chemotherapy for fear of COVID-19’
In April last year, Euronews reported on A study by scientists from University College London and the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer who predicted that 18,000 more people could die from cancer in England alone due to interrupted treatments for COVID.
A most recent study carried out by a coalition of cancer patient organizations across Europe found that in the surveyed countries, 67% of screening programs had been canceled; urgent referrals for suspected cancers had decreased by 59%; and the number of people seeking help for symptoms has also dropped by 69%.
Meanwhile, cancer surgery cancellations have been reported by 44%, according to the European Society for Medical Oncology, which also said that 10% of patients had missed at least one cycle of chemotherapy.
Vicki Meredew, a former educational and child psychologist, spoke to Euronews at the peak of the UK’s first lockdown in April after discovering that her planned round of adjuvant chemotherapy for terminal brain cancer had been postponed.
The 40-year-old woman said she was “a little concerned” about the start of her treatment, as her hospital was already “very stretched out” before the pandemic.
Fast-forward to February and Meredew received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, telling Euronews that her local doctor’s office had offered her one that she had left over. This means that you will be able to restart chemotherapy later this month.
However, not everything has been easy. Meredew was diagnosed in 2018 with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that has a life expectancy of 12 to 15 months. In April, Meredew said her tumor was “surprisingly stable,” but a Christmas scan had shown “signs of progression.”
“I had to restart chemotherapy, but decided to postpone it after an honest conversation with my oncologist because COVID rates were increasing,” he said, referring to the winter outbreak. “Basically, I knew that my chemotherapy would have limited efficacy and I knew that lowering my immunity in the run-up to Christmas was not a good idea because there would always be an increase in COVID with the relaxation of the restrictions.
“In the end, I had to choose between postponing chemotherapy or risking COVID.”
When asked if it was a difficult decision to make, she added: “It was and it wasn’t. Once I decided to postpone chemotherapy, it was a huge relief and I think following my instincts was the right thing to do. My oncologist and my specialist nurse they supported me a lot, which was really helpful […]
“Ultimately my tumor is terminal – there are no curative options, but chemotherapy could help slow the progression, and fortunately my tumor is not growing as fast as a glioblastoma normally would.
“I have basically already outlived my prognosis, so the fact that I’m still here and doing well is a very positive thing.”
‘Travel bans have made it very difficult to obtain specialized treatment’
Laura Nuttall was 18 years old and was just enrolled as an international relations student at King’s College London when she was also diagnosed with glioblastoma. Her mother Nicola, who is now 21, says she’s in “watch and wait” mode, undergoing scans every three months to see if or when the tumors come back.
The family has been traveling every six weeks to Cologne in Germany, where Laura attends the IOZK clinic for immunotherapy treatment that is not available in the UK. Traveling to Germany, however, has become increasingly difficult due to repeated travel bans, and although a capital finance company has previously loaned the Nuttalls their private jet, Nicola said the next trip is already planned and they don’t know how they will fare. that.
“I’m worried that if Laura has a recurrence, I won’t be able to stay by her side during treatment. But more urgently, my mom is also scheduled to have a tumor removed from her kidney on Monday and it really bothers me that we won’t be able to. support her during her treatment, as she is currently protecting herself and will have to continue to do so when she returns home from the hospital. “
Nicola added: “Also to say that I am concerned that if Laura was severely affected by the coronavirus and needed to be ventilated in the hospital and resources were exhausted, you can take her diagnosis into account and ventilate someone else instead of her because of to the possible lack of prognosis that glioblastoma has given him.
“This worries me deeply, but fortunately she received her vaccine yesterday so it is a good positive.”
‘Make all the noise you can’
The UK, like many countries in Europe, is prioritizing those most vulnerable to the severe effects of COVID-19 for the vaccine. With the deployments now underway, the hope is that hospital treatments can work to restore some normalcy.
In the meantime, however, many helpful tips have also been offered in abundance.
“Please make as much noise as you can,” Whittingham said. “Don’t be fooled and don’t assume that they have your best interests at heart. If you have to raise money together or crowdfund for a private consultation, go for it. Time really does matter.”
Meanwhile, Meredew recommends “always discussing symptoms with a GP.”
“Obviously, I realize that it may be difficult at this point, but a phone consultation should be possible. […]
“I guess my best advice is that it all seems daunting, but there is brilliant support available from both medical professionals and charities. It really is not something anyone should tackle alone. There is a very active cancer community on social media that they are also very supportive. “
Expressing a similar sentiment, Nicola said: “There is a lot of help available in the social media communities – it’s really nice to have a support group that understands what you’re going through and can share information, even better if they have a sense of humor!
“Try to have some time outside every day during the lockdown and maybe create some kind of routine; Laura and I are working on a 30-day yoga challenge and lots of free audiobooks from the library.
“We are also eating too much chocolate and watching a lot of movies!”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism