A cancer diagnosis is a terrifying prospect for anyone, no matter the circumstances.  Unfortunately, severe illnesses like cancer do not take a backseat even as Covid-19 dominates headlines in media, campaigns and fundraisers.  

While the world is preoccupied with the pandemic, cancer patients, their families, and caregivers are disproportionally impacted by the Covid pandemic.  The number of individuals diagnosed and living with cancer continue to increase year-on-year.  Furthermore, although cancer patients are more likely to become infected than the general population, the greater risk may be altering or foregoing cancer treatment.

In light of World Cancer Day (4 February), Dr Marion Morkel, Chief Medical Officer at Sanlam, shared expert insight into dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and what that means in a world still overwhelmed with Covid-19.

What is the practical reality at the moment for people being diagnosed and treated for cancer, especially considering that healthcare workers and facilities are so overwhelmed with Covid-19?

Access to screening and diagnostics is limited.  We have all learned about the waves of this pandemic.  What is most critical for many countries – and this has been true for South Africa – is that at the peaks, access to hospitals and other important health screening and diagnostic programmes (among others for different cancers) have been extremely limited.  With certain screenings postponed during that period as well.

Access to treatment is different.  Accessing treatment (such as chemotherapy) is now a series of first testing whether you have the virus, then coming in for treatment.  It is also far lonelier and more impersonal.  Relatives or friends are not allowed to accompany you (to reduce risk of Covid-19 exposure) and your treatment team will most likely be suited up with the necessary personal protective equipment.

Living is different.  For many cancer patients and survivors, a key part of recovery is human connection.  Due to many government regulations (here and abroad), access to personal interaction can usually only occur online.  For those with a prognosis that speaks to a shortened lifespan, the ‘bucket list’ has also had to be modified, as many of these activities require freedom, which has now been severely curtailed.

What are some of the biggest contributors to the staggering number of people living with and fighting cancer?  Are our lifestyles what they should be, and are people going for enough check-ups?

Covid-19 has once again highlighted the tsunami of diseases of lifestyle.  We have seen individuals with chronic disorders as well as an increased BMI be more susceptible to severe Covid-19 infection.  We also saw how quickly misinformation can spread and can do far more damage than we originally thought.  Whether Covid-19 or cancer, arm yourself with facts and not fiction.

There are many cancer screening programmes (from Cervical cancer screening, breast cancer screening, to prostate screening) that are all embedded in science and we should just refresh ourselves with these as we look to be more proactive in prevention.

In South Africa specifically, what are some of the biggest concerns regarding cancer compared to other developed countries around the world?

South Africa has a limited budget for health, and as soon as there is a pressing need in one area that means funding for other areas are impacted.  The Covid-19 pandemic has forced government to channel financial resources in testing, hospitalisation and vaccination, this means that chronic programmes like those for cancer are curtailed.

Do you believe that enough is done by society to address the staggering cancer statistics?

While many cancer organisations have bravely attempted to keep it topical, the size and speed of the pandemic have overshadowed any other health and illness conversation.  

Speaking about high risk for certain cancers in the family will help people be more proactive in timeous screening.  In addition, mindfulness of exposure to triggers (like the sun) and improving lifestyle should all happen at home, regardless of whether there is a family history of cancer.  

What are some of the other big challenges facing people upon diagnosis of cancer (other than the immediate challenges of trauma, and fear)?

At Sanlam, we recognise that this is a tough diagnosis with a tough time that follows (even more so during a pandemic).  

Arming oneself with the facts, a supportive personal team (family and friends) and medical treatment team is an important starting point.  There are really good organisations like CANSA that seek to support cancer patients and their families through this trying journey.  We also recognise the significant and multiple medical advances made by the medical fraternity for all kinds of cancer and severity levels.  

The financial cost of cancer can also be significant.  We are also living in tough economic times, so the added burden of any significant health challenge makes it worse.  Making sure members have the right medical aid cover and life insurance and/or severe illness insurance in place, prepares them for the big ‘what if’.

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2020 Income Disability and Critical Illness claims analysis

Annually Sanlam Corporate: Group Risk (hereafter referred to as SGR) analyses the disability and critical / severe illness insurance claims received during the previous year according to the causes of disability/claim events. 

The results for the 2020 year confirmed the trends observed from the previous year in that cancer and cardiovascular diseases are still the most prevalent reasons for critical/severe illness claims. To view the results of our analysis, click here.