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Year in review: how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted cancer care in B.C.

On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The declaration propelled BC Cancer into a period of rapid change to respond to the virus and keep patients and staff safe.
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Heather Findlay, BC Cancer chief operating officer, reflects on the past year and shares her appreciation to staff, patients and the public.​

​Cancer care does not stop in the face of a pandemic. Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of living with COVID-19, Heather Findlay, BC Cancer’s chief operating officer thinks back on the changes that took place across BC Cancer and the impact it has had. 

“Throughout the first wave of COVID-19 in the spring, staff at BC Cancer worked incredibly hard to ensure patients continued to receive life-saving and life-enhancing cancer care. Patient care and safety was our number one priority,” says Heather Findlay. “I’d also like to acknowledge the incredible toll the pandemic has had on patients. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment is difficult at any time. To do so during COVID-19 is even harder. We recognize this.”

BC Cancer executive leaders and medical directors all banded together to share their commitment to patient care in a video, understanding this has been a difficult time for patients and their loved ones. 


In keeping with safety guidelines outlined by B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC Cancer took immediate steps prevent risk of exposure to COVID-19 at centres, which included embracing virtual health as a way to deliver care. In 2019, BC Cancer saw 8 per cent of patients virtually. In the span of a few weeks following the declaration of the pandemic, that number ballooned to approximately 70 per cent and up to 90 per cent at the Victoria centre. Patients were seen virtually in an effort to reduce the footprint of people within centres and decrease the risk of infection for our patients and staff. Centres began active screening at entrances, enhanced cleaning measures were implemented, mask and personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines were rolled out, and prescriptions were mailed to patients when possible.     

A message to BC Cancer staff outside the centre in Victoria

As a result, COVID-19 infection amongst BC Cancer patients has been approximately half that of the general population in B.C. In other parts of the world, cancer patients were seen to have a rate of infection at twice that of the general population due to their need to access the health care system frequently.  

“I’d like to thank our patients, their loved ones, and the general public for adhering to safety guidelines – not just within our centres but at their homes and throughout the course of their daily lives as we all worked together to keep transmission rates low,” says Findlay.

Patient services including art therapy moved online and physiotherapists began recommending outdoor activity as gyms and fitness studios shuttered. Teaching resources moved online and over the course of the summer, a pivot was made to begin a period of restart and recovery for programs that had been suspended, including screening, clinical trials, and oral oncology. BC Cancer launched a remote patient monitoring program – the first of its kind in Canada to monitor patients receiving head and neck cancers or lung cancer at home, while researchers at the Genome Sciences Centre began genetic sequencing on Canadians with COVID-19 to better understand how different people respond to infection. 

“One year later, it took a lot to get us to where we find ourselves,” says Findlay. “It took a willingness to adapt and embrace change. It took perseverance, diligence and unfailing adherence to infection control practices. It took compassion, kindness and an unwavering focus on the health and wellness of each other.”

And while we maintained vigilance against COVID-19, BC Cancer also brought care closer to home for residents in the Interior with the opening of BC Cancer – Kelowna’s PET/CT program. A second cancer centre in Surrey was announced as was more capacity for cancer care in Burnaby. BC Cancer also announced a new lung screening program; the first in Canada which also received the world’s largest philanthropic gift to advance lung cancer research and care. 

“While we are still living within the realities of the pandemic, we are moving closer the day when everyone who wants the COVID-19 vaccine will have the opportunity to get it. That point may seem far off right now, but it is something we can look forward to. As we’ve learned from this past year, when we pull together, we can overcome any challenges that arise.”

To patients and their families, to health care workers and staff, and to all British Columbians, we appreciate your dedication, commitment and continued efforts. Thank you for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do.

SOURCE: Year in review: how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted cancer care in B.C. ( )
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