Cancer isn’t always a matter of life and death anymore – today, an increasing number of Canadians are living with cancer as a chronic condition. However, the majority of Canadians and the healthcare system have not necessarily responded to this shift.
“The fact is, 63 per cent of Canadian cancer patients live longer than five years after diagnosisi, and if a cancer patient survives past one year, that number rises to 81 per centii,” said Jackie Manthorne, president and CEO of Canadian Cancer Survivor Network (CCSN). “This requires a huge shift in the way we treat cancer patients. We need to make sure that people are aware of this change, and that our system adapts to meet the long-term needs of people throughout their cancer journey.”
And while survival rates are improving, Canadians currently think that only 47 per cent of cancer patients survive longer than five years, according to a new survey commissioned by CCSN, demonstrating that Canadians are less aware of cancer as a chronic condition.
Cancer: A chronic condition
While there are still many cancers that strike quickly and metastasize or have poor survival rates, for many, cancer is becoming a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment and support to deal with side effects ranging from nausea, pain and low immunity to bone loss, heart disease and arthritis.
“The cancer treatment journey is radically different today from what it was even 15 years ago. Therapeutic advances have resulted in vastly improved survival rates for many forms of cancer and in many cases, we hope to treat patients with the intent of cure,” said Dr. Sandy Sehdev, medical oncologist at William Osler Health Centre in Brampton, Ontario. “While this is promising, and we are pleased with the progress, we need to consider all that survivorship encompasses to address the long-term needs of people who have had cancer.”
While the CCSN survey showed that 70 per cent of Canadians either don’t know how long the side effects last or think they only last a few days, weeks or months, these side effects can last for years and have a significant impact on a patient’s quality of life.
“I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer nearly 15 years ago. My initial treatment was six months of hormone therapy, and 38 rounds of radiation. But that wasn’t the end of my treatment – I needed hormone shots for five years after that, and I’m still experiencing side effects now, including arthritis,” said Jim Dorsey, a prostate cancer survivor living in Brampton, Ontario. “I’m lucky that I’ve had coverage for my medications. I can’t imagine what happens to patients who don’t have that support.”
In addition to dealing with the condition itself, patients often have to worry about whether or not treatment for these side effects and conditions are covered by their provincial health plans – what’s more, access to and coverage for medications frequently differs from province to province. Not surprisingly, the majority of Canadians believe that a patient should be spared financial burden, with 85 per cent of Canadians believing that medicines to treat the side effects of cancer should be publicly covered by the provinces.
“Canadians have great hope when it comes to finding a cure for cancer. In fact, 66 per cent of Canadians believe a cure for cancer will be found within a generation,” said Manthorne. “But until that time, we need to continue to provide support for patients throughout their cancer journey – from diagnosis through post-treatment. By making sure survivors have access to the medicines they need, we enable them to focus on fighting their disease, and live better and healthier lives.”