The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed most aspects of our lives, including cancer care.

In the weeks and months after the pandemic hit New Jersey in March, in-person medical visits were extremely limited — because of restrictions meant to keep a quickly-spreading disease from overtaking health facilities themselves, and to keep emergency care available for people in crisis. That's no longer the case.

Dr. Andrew M. Evens, the associate director for clinical services and director of the lymphoma program at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and the medical director of oncology services at RWJBarnabas Health, said back in March and April “it was incredibly challenging.”

"Not only was it one of the worst pandemics of our lifetime, but it was new, a novel virus, and we didn’t have all of the information, the data points that we needed in terms of infectivity and keeping people safe — and most medical practices, not just cancer care, scaled back significantly," Evens said.

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Treatments did not stop, however “we decreased the amount of foot traffic, and reconverted, as many practices did, to significant use of telemedicine," Evens said.

He noted much as been learned since those early days of COVID. Now, facilities like his have scaled back to nearly pre-pandemic levels.

"We still use telemedicine, but instead of 60% of our patient visits, it’s now 10 to 15%,” Evens said.

He said multiple steps have been taken to make sure patients and medical staffs are protected from the coronavirus, including strict social distancing measures, mandated mask use for patients and staff, and screenings at points of entry to the health facility campus.

Most visitors are still prohibited — "just because as you can imagine, many cancer patients have a low immune system, so we’re really just trying to be cautious there.”

Events stressed even though COVID cases are now rising, people should not delay following through on healthcare, especially for cancer.

"Such a critical aspect of effectively treating cancer is early diagnosis and ealy intervention," Evens said.

He said it’s important to take precautions during a pandemic “but we can do both at the same time.

"We can intervene early with effective therapy but we can be smart and safe with respect to COVID at the same time," he said.

Dr. Evens added while many medical centers have dramatically scaled back clinical trials since the start of the pandemic, RWJBarnabas has continued most of its own.

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