How COVID Delays Impacted One Texas Woman's Treatment
- Mary Garr had scheduled a cancer screening for March 2000, but it was pushed back until October because of COVID delays. Her biopsy was then delayed another month for the same reason.
- The mother-of-three and cancer survivor, 59, then learned that she had colon cancer which had spread to her lymph nodes in early January and soon after started chemo.
- Almost 10 million cancer screenings did not happen due to COVID-19, and it is estimated that 10,000 people will die of breast and colorectal cancers over the next 10 years as a result.
Those are the words of Mary Garr, a retired army colonel, mother, CEO, and cancer survivor who finds herself once again battling the disease she first beat 20 years ago after being diagnosed with colon cancer.Read More
And now, the same thing could happen with the chemotherapy she needs to save her life.
This was all occurring at the same time that Garr was working so hard to mitigate the impact of COVID on her community in her day-to-day work as the CEO of Family Service Association as well as in her interim role as San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director.
An April study in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Oncology found that 9.4 million breast, colon, and prostate cancer screenings were missed in just the first few waves of the pandemic.
It is estimated that this could lead to 10,000 deaths over the next 10 years, and that is before any of these studies have considered the impact of the current fourth wave of the virus impacting people like Mary Garr.
This is her story.
COVID Delays Push Back Cancer Screening Five Months
“Since retiring from the Army, I have had the privilege of being the CEO of not one, but two nonprofits, both working to ensure and improve the overall health and quality of life of vulnerable populations,” explains Garr. “I have had to incorporate annual colonoscopies into my lifestyle, a minor inconvenience to ensure my health.”
She had scheduled her screening for May, but was informed that all appointments had been canceled because her provider was only seeing patients requiring emergency procedures.
Garr waited two months and then called to make a new appointment in July, when her clinic had once again started to perform routine procedures. The earliest date available was in mid-October, a delay of five months from when she initially intended to have her screening.
COVID Delays Surgery by One Month
“When I received my scope, my physician said he saw a polyp, which is not uncommon,” recalls Garr.
She booked her appointment for surgery to remove and biopsy the polyp that same day.
“I was scheduled for this procedure in mid-November. Five days beforehand, the provider called me to say that he was being sent to help the COVID-19 surge in El Paso,” Garr says.
Garr says that her provider was true to his word, and that she went in for the five-hour procedure just a few days before Christmas, a delay of one month from when she scheduled the surgery.
“When I woke up, my provider gave the surprising and disappointing news that, although he could remove most of the polyp, there was a part that was too deep and would require (additional) surgery,” says Garr. “He also informed me that he was concerned that what he saw had significant changes in the two months since my scope, and he knew it was cancer.”
Thankfully this time, Garr’s surgery wasn’t delayed. But the surgery might never have been necessary were it not for the virus.
“The seven-hour surgery went well, and we were all hopeful that the cancer was gone,” says Garr.
Twelve days later, she got the results.
“On January 20, my husband and I met with my surgeon, who gave us the disappointing news that, although the complicated surgery went well and the tumor was gone, it was an aggressive cancer and had spread to my lymph nodes,” says Garr.
She now finds herself undergoing chemotherapy despite doing everything right. And even that was almost delayed by yet another COVID-19 surge.
“I am working through many emotions regarding screening, diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and recovery,” says Garr. “I am disappointed and frustrated to be in this position when it could have been avoided, but I cannot dwell on the ‘what ifs.’ I have to focus on getting better, even when the chemotherapy is making me sick and miserable.”
How Cancer Patients Can Stay Protected From Covid-19
Multiple oncologists tell SurvivorNet that wearing a mask is still the best way for cancer patients to avoid contracting or spreading the virus as the dangerous delta variant spreads.
Dr. Paul G. Richardson, clinical program leader and director of clinical research at the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute notes that getting vaccinated and receiving a booster is just one of many steps cancer patients should be taking at this time.
“The key is the success of vaccinations, but other strategies in my [multiple myeloma] patients focus on continued precautions, and attention to therapeutics – not least as the variants are such a concern,” says Dr. Richardson.
“We are moving from pandemia to endemia and as such long-term adjustments and continued caution are inevitable in terms of treatments for underlying and supportive care. Fortunately, however, we are moving towards a more manageable paradigm of therapy/care, although the danger of SARS CoV2 remains clear and present.”
That danger seems to be growing with each day as well with the delta variant rising around the country, and studies show that it is the most vulnerable who are contracting this variant of the virus. Some research indicates that some blood cancer patients don’t get the same benefit from the COVID-19 vaccine. This includes people with cancer that affects the blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes, particularly those with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
That is why the booster shot is so critical to those with cancer.
According to Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), it’s critical that cancer patients going through active treatment get this booster.
“[It’s] very important, since we know some cancer patients do not mount a sufficient immune response after the first series of shots,” Dr. Shah tells SurvivorNet.
Currently, guidelines for the booster only pertain to those who are going through active treatment. However, Dr. Shah says that if cancer survivors are interested in receiving the booster, it could be decided on a case-by-case basis. You should check with your doctor directly.
There may also be another option in the near future, as a special vaccine for cancer patients is currently in development.
The National Cancer Institute is sponsoring a trial for a vaccine that is specifically designed to protect individuals with cancer from contracting COVID-19. That trial is still in the recruiting stages.