Guidelines on Delaying Cancer Surgery
During COVID-19

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

March 26, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

Cancer surgeries may need to be delayed as hospitals are forced to allocate resources to a surge of COVID-19 patients, says the American College of Surgeons, as it issues a new set of recommendations in reaction to the crisis.

Most surgeons have already curtailed or have ceased to perform elective operations, the ACS notes, and recommends that surgeons continue to do so in  in order to preserve the necessary resources for care of critically ill patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new clinical guidance for elective surgical case triage during the pandemic includes recommendations for cancer surgery as well as for procedures that are specific to certain cancer types.

"These triage guidelines and joint recommendations are being issued as we appear to be entering a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic with more hospitals facing a potential push beyond their resources to care for critically ill patients," commented ACS Executive Director David B. Hoyt, MD, in a statement.

"ACS will continue to monitor the landscape for surgical care but we feel this guidance document provides a good foundation for surgeons to begin enacting these triage recommendations today to help them make the best decisions possible for their patients during COVID-19," he said.

For cancer surgery, which is often not elective but essential to treatment, ACS has issued general guidance for triaging patients, taking into account the acuity of the local COVID-19 situation.

First, decisions about whether to proceed with elective surgeries must consider the available resources of local facilities. The parties responsible for preparing the facility to manage coronavirus patients should be sharing information at regular intervals about constraints on local resources, especially personal protective equipment (PPE), which is running low in many jurisdictions. For example, if an elective case has a high likelihood of needing postoperative ICU care, it is imperative to balance the risk of delay against the need of availability for patients with COVID-19.

Second, cancer care coordination should use virtual technologies as much as possible, and facilities with tumor boards may find it helpful to locate multidisciplinary experts by virtual means, to assist with decision making and establishing triage criteria.

Three Phases of Pandemic

The ACS has also organized decision making into three phases that reflect the acuity of the local COVID-19 situation:

  • Phase I. Semi-Urgent Setting (Preparation Phase) — few COVID-19 patients, hospital resources not exhausted, institution still has ICU ventilator capacity and COVID-19 trajectory not in rapid escalation phase

  • Phase II. Urgent Setting — many COVID-19 patients, ICU and ventilator capacity limited, operating room supplies limited

  • Phase III. Hospital resources are all routed to COVID-19 patients, no ventilator or ICU capacity, operating room supplies exhausted; patients in whom death is likely within hours if surgery is deferred

Breast Cancer Surgery

The ACS also issued specific guidance for several tumor types, including guidance for breast cancer surgery.

For phase I, surgery should be restricted to patients who are likely to experience compromised survival if it is not performed within next 3 months. This includes patients completing neoadjuvant treatment, those with clinical stage T2 or N1 ERpos/PRpos/HER2-negative tumors, patients with triple negative or HER2-positive tumors, discordant biopsies that are likely to be malignant, and removal of a recurrent lesion.

Phase II would be restricted to patients whose survival is threatened if surgery is not performed within the next few days. These would include incision and drainage of breast abscess, evacuating a hematoma, revision of an ischemic mastectomy flap, and revascularization/revision of an autologous tissue flap (autologous reconstruction should be deferred).

In Phase III, surgical procedures would be restricted to patients who may not survive if surgery is not performed within a few hours. This includes incision and drainage of breast abscess, evacuation of a hematoma, revision of an ischemic mastectomy flap, and revascularization/revision of an autologous tissue flap (autologous reconstruction should be deferred).

Colorectal Cancer Surgery

Guidance for colorectal cancer surgery is also split into the three phases of the pandemic.

Phase I would include cases needing surgical intervention as soon as feasible, while recognizing that the status of each hospital is likely to evolve over the next week or two. These patients would include those with nearly obstructing colon cancer or rectal cancer; cancers that require frequent transfusions; asymptomatic colon cancers; rectal cancers that do not respond to neoadjuvant chemoradiation; malignancies with a risk of local perforation and sepsis; and those with early stage rectal cancers that are not candidates for adjuvant therapy.

Phase II comprises patients needing surgery as soon as feasible, but recognizing that hospital status is likely to progress over the next few days. These cases include patients with a nearly obstructing colon cancer where stenting is not an option; those with nearly obstructing rectal cancer (should be diverted); cancers with high (inpatient) transfusion requirements; and cancers with pending evidence of local perforation and sepsis.

All colorectal procedures typically scheduled as routine should be delayed.

In Phase III, if the status of the facility is likely to progress within hours, the only surgery that should be performed would be for perforated, obstructed, or actively bleeding (inpatient transfusion dependent) cancers or those with sepsis. All other surgeries should be deferred.

Thoracic Cancer Surgery

Thoracic cancer surgery guidelines follow those for breast cancer. Phase I should be restricted to patients whose survival may be impacted if surgery is not performed within next 3 months. These include:

  • Cases with solid or predominantly solid (>50%) lung cancer or presumed lung cancer (>2 cm), clinical node negative

  • Node positive lung cancer

  • Post-induction therapy cancer

  • Esophageal cancer T1b or greater

  • Chest wall tumors that are potentially aggressive and not manageable by alternative means

  • Stenting for obstructing esophageal tumor

  • Staging to start treatment (mediastinoscopy, diagnostic VATS for pleural dissemination)

  • Symptomatic mediastinal tumors

  • Patients who are enrolled in therapeutic clinical trials.

Phase II would permit surgery if survival will be impacted by a delay of a few days. These cases would include nonseptic perforated cancer of esophagus, a tumor-associated infection, and management of surgical complications in a hemodynamically stable patient.

All thoracic procedures considered to be routine/elective would be deferred.

Phase III restricts surgery to patients whose survival will be compromised if they do not undergo surgery within the next few hours. This group would include perforated cancer of esophagus in a septic patient, a patient with a threatened airway, sepsis associated with the cancer, and management of surgical complications in an unstable patient  (active bleeding that requires surgery, dehiscence of airway, anastomotic leak with sepsis).

All other cases would be deferred.

Other Cancer Types

Although the ACS doesn't have specific guidelines for all cancer types, a few are included in their general recommendations for the specialty.

For gynecologic surgeries, ACS lists cancer or suspected cancer as indications where significantly delayed surgery could cause "significant harm."

Delays, in general, are not recommended for neurosurgery, which would include brain cancers. In pediatrics, most cancer surgery is considered "urgent," where a delay of days to weeks could prove detrimental to the patient. This would comprise all solid tumors, including the initial biopsy and resection following neoadjuvant therapy.

American College of Surgeons. COVID-19: Elective Case Triage Guidelines for Surgical Care Online. Published online March 24, 2020.  

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