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We write this column not only as physicians who care for cancer patients. We write this as mothers and fathers. As wives and husbands. As people with high-risk family members. As friends. As community members. And as colleagues.
We carry a lot of worry around with us these days. We worry for the health of ourselves and our families. We worry for the health of our friends, neighbors and colleagues. We worry for our community and the significant financial toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on so many of the people we know and respect.
From both a professional and a personal perspective, we worry for the health and safety of our cancer patients, whom we continue to treat every day to help them through not only their cancer journey, but now also the additional anxieties brought on by coronavirus.
There are no words that are adequate to truly express the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on all of us, in so many different ways, both tangible and intangible.
For cancer patients, the stakes are even higher, as data suggest they have a three to five times higher risk of dying from coronavirus than the population at large. The bitter reality is that the very treatments we offer them to treat their cancer often put them at even higher risk of dying from coronavirus.
But what is worrying us more than ever now is that some cancer patients believe that they are not able to receive their treatments during this pandemic.
At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and at Northern Light Cancer Care in Brewer, we have been working relentlessly since the coronavirus pandemic first reached our community in March to find a way to continue to treat our cancer patients with minimal delay, while keeping them safe in the process.
Patients who need diagnostic biopsies and/or other diagnostic testing are still able to get those done without delay. Cancer surgeries are still taking place. Patients are still being seen in clinic for necessary treatments.
We continue to see patients who, while they may not be on active treatment, still require routine monitoring of their disease. We are connecting with some of these patients in person, while others are being offered appointments by video telehealth or by phone calls. The telehealth visits in particular have been very well received by our cancer patients, who are able to “see” us without having to risk leaving their homes to do so.
It is true that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, we have made some adjustments in the types of medications that we are giving, and the order in which we give treatments for certain cancers. But we still continue to provide treatment for any and all cancer patients who need treatment for their disease. No necessary surgeries, diagnostic studies, or treatments are being withheld.
It is also true that certain nonessential treatments and imaging and laboratory studies are being postponed for the short term if the risk outweighs the benefit. Services are never withheld if they are essential to a patient’s care.
In this time of heightened anxiety, clear communication is more important than ever. We would strongly encourage any cancer patients with concerns about their treatment plans to contact their oncology providers directly to discuss their concerns.
At Northern Light Health, we remain dedicated to caring for our community’s cancer patients. While the coronavirus pandemic may be changing the way in which we are providing that care, the quality of care we strive to provide remains unchanged. We will, as always, be here for you when you need us.
Sigrid E. Berg is the medical director at Northern Light Cancer Care. Susan E. O’Connor, a surgeon at Northern Light Breast Surgery; Nadine P. SantaCruz, a pediatric oncologist and hematologist at Northern Light Pediatric Cancer Care; John J. Swalec, section head at Northern Light Radiation Oncology; and Brad E. Waddell, a surgical oncologist at Northern Light Surgery and chief of surgical service at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, contributed to this column.