Rapid Shifts in Radiotherapy for Cancer in Response to COVID-19

Liam Davenport

January 29, 2021

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Dramatic changes in the use of radiotherapy for cancer were seen during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in England. Some radiotherapy regimens were shortened, but others were intensified, suggesting that they were being used as a replacement for surgery.

The findings come from an analysis of National Health Service (NHS) data in England, which also indicated that overall, there was a reduction in the amount of radiotherapy delivered.

"Radiotherapy is a very important treatment option for cancer, and our study shows that across the English NHS, there was a rapid shift in how radiotherapy was used," said lead author Katie Spencer, PhD, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom.

"It is impressive to see that the data closely follow the guidelines published at the start of the pandemic," she said. For instance, for patients with breast and colorectal cancers, treatment regimens were shorter and more intensive, whereas for patients with prostate cancer, treatments were delayed to reduce exposure to COVID-19.

"In other cases, such as head and neck cancers and anal cancers, we saw that the number of radiotherapy treatments hardly changed during the first wave. This was really reassuring, as we know that it is vital that these treatments are not delayed," Spencer added.

The study was published online in The Lancet Oncology on January 22.

Researchers examined data from the National Radiotherapy Dataset on all radiotherapy delivered for cancer in the NHS in England between February 4, 2019, and June 28, 2020.

On interrupted time-series analysis, the introduction of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with a significant reduction in both radiotherapy courses and attendances (P < .0001).

Overall, the team estimates that there were 3263 fewer radiotherapy treatment courses and 119,050 fewer attendances than would have taken place had the pandemic not occurred.

The largest reduction in treatment courses was seen for prostate cancer, with a 77% reduction in April 2020 in comparison with April 2019, and in nonmelanoma skin cancer, for which there was a decrease of 72.4% over the same period.

There were, however, marked increases in the number of radiotherapy courses given for some disorders in April 2020 in comparison with April 2019. Radiotherapy for bladder cancer increased by 64.2%; for esophageal cancer, it increased by 41.2%; and for rectal cancer, it increased by 36.3%.

This likely reflects the fact that during the pandemic, "surgical capacity dropped dramatically," Spencer told Medscape Medical News.

"To try to mitigate the consequences of that, working with their multidisciplinary teams, doctors increased the use of radiotherapy to provide a timely alternative curative treatment and help mitigate the consequences of not having access to surgery," she said.

"This is a cohort of patients who would otherwise have had their treatment delayed, and we know that's detrimental, so having an alternative strategy that in specific cases can offer similar outcomes is fantastic," she added.

The analysis shows the "incredible speed with which radiotherapy services within the NHS were able to adapt their treatment patterns to help protect patients with cancer whilst coping with reduced surgical capacity due to the global pandemic," coauthor Tom Roques, MD, medical director of professional practice for clinical oncology at the Royal College of Radiologists, commented in a statement.

Shorter RT Regimen for Breast Cancer

In addition to the pandemic, two other events led to changes in the way that radiotherapy was delivered in the period analyzed.

One was the publication in April 2020 of the FAST-Forward trial of radiotherapy for breast cancer. This showed that radiotherapy with 26 Gy in five fractions administered over 1 week following primary surgery for early breast cancer was noninferior to the standard 40 Gy delivered in 15 fractions over 3 weeks.

These results led to immediate changes in practice, and quick implementation across the NHS "massively freed up capacity in terms of the number of fractions being delivered but also really helped to keep patients safe by ensuring they were only visiting the hospital on five occasions instead of the standard fifteen," Spencer said.

Indeed, the analysis showed that the proportion of all breast radiotherapy courses given as the ultra-hypofractionated regimen of 26 Gy in five fractions increased from 0.2% in April 2019 to 60.0% in April 2020 (P < .0001), which the authors note "contributed to the substantial reduction" in radiotherapy attendances.

The other event occurred in March 2020, when NHS England "dramatically changed commissioning" from a tariff-based system in which radiotherapy was paid for every fraction delivered to a "payment that reflects the amount of money that was spent the previous year.

"That supported radiotherapy providers to do what was necessary to continue to deliver the best possible care to patients with cancer despite COVID," Spencer added. "We saw this in our study, with doctors shortening radiotherapy courses to keep patients safe and departments running."

The question now is whether the changes resulting from these two events will be maintained once the COVID-19 pandemic lifts.

What will happen to radiotherapy service commissioning beyond the end of the financial year is currently "unclear," Spencer commented.

"There's strong clinical support for continuing to use the shorter treatment courses in breast cancer, although it's hard to know how any change in commissioning and reduction in COVID risk will influence their use over the next year and beyond," she said.

"The data we used in this study, that Public Health England collect, will be really valuable in helping us to assess this in future," Spencer said.

Radiotherapy Remains Reduced

Spencer told Medscape Medical News that, "whilst in April and May 2020 we saw that the fall in radiotherapy was in cancers where it's safe to delay treatment, in June we could see that radiotherapy activity was not back up to where it was previously, and that was across a wider range of cancers.

"This looks likely to be because of a fall in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer," she said.

"The pandemic continues to cause severe disruption for cancer diagnosis and some national screening programs," she commented. "This has meant that fewer patients were diagnosed with cancer during the first wave of the pandemic, and this is likely to have led to the persistent fall in treatments we are seeing."

By November 2020, some referral pathways were back up to the volume of patients that was seen before the pandemic, but "it's very variable across different diagnoses."

The fear is that the resurgence of COVID-19 over the past month has made the situation worse, which is "very worrying," Spencer said.

No funding for the study was declared. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Oncol. Published online January 21, 2021. Full text

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