Coronavirus

'Don't miss those symptoms': Australians urged to attend cancer appointments amid coronavirus drop off

Shoppers and workers walk past an official medical advice sign in Pitt Street Mall, Sydney Source: AAP

Whether it's a lump, bump or bad cough, cancer specialists are urging Australians to keep up their normal health routines during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid bigger problems later.

Australians are being urged to attend cancer appointments and treatments as normal following a significant coronavirus-induced drop in visits to GP and specialist services.

Cancer Australia CEO Dorothy Keefe said the coronavirus pandemic was deterring people from attending their usual check-ups for fear of catching the virus or overloading the health system.

“Everyone is so worried about catching the virus, they're maybe not going to their GP with symptoms that they've had for a while or that have changed,” she said.

“They might be tempted to avoid going to the GP, so what we want to say to people is: 'don't miss those symptoms'.”

Professor Keefe said Cancer Australia was concerned that if people skipped their appointments potential cancers may be missed.

“We really don't want cancer to be missed now. That will become evident in six, nine or 12 months' time where we might see a little bit of a spike in cancers - which we don't want,” she said.

“The earlier we diagnose them all, the better our chances of cure.”

Cancer Australia has released a new guide to help health professionals detect lung cancer, which Professor Keefe said shares many symptoms with the coronavirus, such as coughing, trouble breathing and chest infections.

“One of the problems with COVID-19 is that some of the symptoms are similar to those that could be lung cancers and we just want people to remember that a cough or chest infection is not always due to COVID-19,” she said.

'Don't be nervous'

Sydney woman Lillian Leigh knows firsthand how easy it is to put off going to the doctor.

Busy with work and her young child five years ago, she said she never thought she’d be diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

"It was so out of the blue, so unbelievable really,” she said.

Lilian was 34 years old when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
Lilian was 34 years old when she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
SBS News

Ms Leigh is still going through treatment to keep her cancer stable, and said while COVID-19 was an extra hurdle, it should not deter people from attending their usual appointments.

“Don't be nervous, trust your doctor. Trust that the system is there to look after you.”

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (RANZCR) said it was concerned cancer patients were discontinuing their treatments during the pandemic after making assumptions about the availability of services.

Madhavi Chilkuri, dean of RANZCR's faculty of radiation oncology, said treatment services remain open.

“There's a concern that we are not seeing as many patients as before, and quite rightly some of them may be safely delayed, and that could be a decision by the clinician," Dr Chilkuri said.

“But we don't want the patients to make that decision on their own without consulting their oncologist."

Dr Chilkuri said patients should take advantage of online and telehealth services.

“Of course the biggest advantage we have is technology and we're using a lot of telephoning and telehealth,” she said.

Telehealth not an option for all

But accessing those telehealth services is not so straightforward for everyone in Australia, according to Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health CEO Adele Murdolo.

“Where it's on the phone and there are already language barriers, and we know that there have always been difficulties getting interpreting for all health consultations that are needed, we know that telehealth isn't going to be an option for all migrant women,” she said.

Dr Murdolo said providing information in languages other than English about what services are open and safe would be integral to getting everyone back into their usual health routines.

Multicultural Centre for Women's Health CEO Dr Adele Murdolo
Multicultural Centre for Women's Health CEO Dr Adele Murdolo.
SBS News

“When it comes to specific health issues … it has been really difficult to find that information in languages other than English,” she said.

“If you do have cancer and you're wanting to weigh up the risks … it is really difficult to access that information.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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