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Association between the COVID-19 pandemic and first cancer treatment modality: a population-based cohort study


Background — Physicians were directed to prioritize using nonsurgical cancer treatment at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We sought to quantify the impact of this policy on the modality of first cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or no treatment).

Methods — In this population-based study using Ontario data from linked administrative databases, we identified adults diagnosed with cancer from January 2016 to November 2020 and their first cancer treatment received within 1 year postdiagnosis. Segmented Poisson regressions were applied to each modality to estimate the change in mean 1-year recipient volume per thousand patients (rate) at the start of the pandemic (the week of Mar. 15, 2020) and change in the weekly trend in rate during the pandemic (Mar. 15, 2020, to Nov. 7, 2020) relative to before the pandemic (Jan. 3, 2016, to Mar. 14, 2020).

Results — We included 321 535 people diagnosed with cancer. During the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mean rate of receiving upfront surgery over the next year declined by 9% (rate ratio 0.91, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.88–0.95), and chemotherapy and radiotherapy rates rose by 30% (rate ratio 1.30, 95% CI 1.23–1.36) and 13% (rate ratio 1.13, 95% CI 1.07–1.19), respectively. Subsequently, the 1-year rate of upfront surgery increased at 0.4% for each week (rate ratio 1.004, 95% CI 1.002–1.006), and chemotherapy and radiotherapy rates decreased by 0.9% (rate ratio 0.991, 95% CI 0.989–0.994) and 0.4% (rate ratio 0.996, 95% CI 0.994–0.998), respectively, per week. Rates of each modality resumed to prepandemic levels at 24–31 weeks into the pandemic.

Interpretation — An immediate and sustained increase in use of nonsurgical therapy as the first cancer treatment occurred during the first 8 months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. Further research is needed to understand the consequences.



Fu R, Sutradhar R, Li Q, Hanna TP, Chan KKW, Irish JC, Coburn N, Hallet J, Dare A, Singh S, Parmar A, Earle CC, Lapointe-Shaw L, Krzyzanowska MK, Finelli A, Louie AV, Look Hong NJ, Witterick IJ, Mahar A, Urbach DR, McIsaac DI, Enepekides D, Eskander A. CMAJ Open. 2023; 11(3):E426-33. Epub 2023 May 9.

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