Covid-19: impact on ovarian cancer patients, research and charities

We wouldn’t be surprised if you never want to hear the words Covid-19 ever again! In just a short number of months, the pandemic has caused unimaginable change. Offices, schools and workplaces are closed. People working on the front line or to keep essential services running are busier than ever and are having to put their own health at risk. And those in a ‘high-risk’ category are self-isolating away from family and friends at what can be a particularly anxious time. We all hope this comes to an end soon, but the impact on ovarian cancer patients, research, and charities like Ovarian Cancer Action, will be far-reaching and last far beyond lockdown.

We have always prided ourselves on being honest and transparent in our communications with our supporters. This report has been developed to update Ovarian Cancer Action’s donors, fundraisers, volunteers and advocates about the expected impact on ovarian cancer patients and research, and the financial implications to our charity and our work.

The need to support women with ovarian cancer has never been greater

The NHS had to act quickly and dramatically to provide a Covid-19 response across the UK. This was vital and necessary. However, it has resulted in previously unthinkable changes and disruption to daily services, such as oncology. During this time, almost all elective surgeries for ovarian cancer have stopped. Chemotherapy treatment for thousands of women has been postponed or reduced, and almost all outpatient clinics are now run over the phone with very few face-to-face consultations. No new clinical trials are being launched and very few patients are being recruited to existing clinical trials. Clinics across the UK have also seen around 75% reduction in referrals for cancer diagnosis, as people are concerned about visiting their GP or a hospital.

In the last six weeks, patient demand for ovarian cancer information and advice has increased nearly 300%. Patients have concerns ranging from logistical queries about what this means for their treatment, to how to manage their anxiety at this time of heightened uncertainty.

“I’m currently having paclitaxel treatment at the Royal Marsden once a week. [It’s] the only outing I go on and it's causing me stress. I have been using a cold cap with really good success. But this adds two hours to the hospital visit which i really want to keep to a minimum.”

Ovarian cancer patient

What we are doing about it

  • Square staying connected

    Staying Connected

    Whilst Ovarian Cancer Action’s usual primary focus is to fund innovative research, we have rapidly redirected our effort to provide critical and immediate support to ovarian cancer patients. One example of this is our partnership with Ovacome, an ovarian cancer support charity, to develop our ‘Staying Connected’ programme. This will run until the end of June, or for however long the increased need is there. Together, we are delivering online workshops and webinars for patients to provide them with vital information and practical guides to help them get through this time. We also plan to provide support for people in hard-to-reach communities or who do not have access to the internet. Click the image above to find out more about Staying Connected.

  • Kim Gray rose

    Staying Aware

    It remains vital that women are encouraged to seek diagnosis for any symptoms they may be experiencing as early as possible. The dramatic reduction in referrals will lead to even later diagnosis, and could impact on a patient's chance of survival. On the guidance of NHS England, Ovarian Cancer Action will be running an online ‘Staying Aware’ campaign. This will run throughout May, and beyond, to spread awareness of the four main symptoms, and how to safely seek a diagnosis. We have also adapted our existing World Ovarian Cancer Day awareness campaign for May. Previously we have handed out white roses carrying symptoms messaging around the country, but this year the campaign is entirely digital. Click the image above to find out more.

  • Parliament

    Campaigning for better patient outcomes

    We are and will continue to lobby the government around the need to protect the future of research, particularly ovarian cancer research, and to highlight the risk to future research funding and ultimately treatment. The life sciences research sector will be massively important to the UK’s economic recovery as well as people’s lives.

The inevitable impact on ovarian cancer research

In the last few months, medical researchers have either been diverted to find a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 or are experiencing delays to their research due to budget-cuts, limitations on resourcing and stay-at-home orders. Some have also had to leave their labs to work alongside their colleagues in the front line, treating Covid-19 patients. Cancer Research UK announced in March that they were going to cut £44m out of their research budget this year and other cancer research funders have taken similar actions. Ovarian Cancer Action is no exception. We are expecting a steep drop in donation income this year, and as such we have made some tough decisions, together with our funded researchers, about which research projects we scale down and delay. At this stage, we are not in a position to consider any new research applications. 

Both of OCA’s funded laboratories – the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre (OCARC) at Imperial College Hospital, and the Weatherill Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford – have temporarily closed. Our researchers have faced huge disruption due to lock-down but they are still working to move their research forward in whatever way they can. Instead of conducting new experiments in the labs, they are analysing their pre-collected data and planning the vital next stage of their research at home.

“In a best case scenario, the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre labs will be able to open again in June. But this will be a phased approach. It will be some time until we can work in the labs as we were before Covid-19”

Prof Iain McNeish, Director, Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre

These postponements and budget-cuts will undoubtedly set back new findings and delay the development of new and better early detection tools and treatments available for women.

We are here for the ovarian cancer community despite the decline in our income 

The charity sector, like so many others, has been significantly impacted. It is estimated that charities will lose £4 billion in income over 12 weeks as fundraising events such as the London Marathon are adapted, postponed or cancelled.  Although we welcomed the government's announcement of the £750m support package for charities, this is much smaller than the amount of support being offered to the private sector. In addition, like many other charities, we still do not know if we will be eligible for some of this funding or not.

We have already experienced a large drop in income due to cancelled events that hitherto raised more than 25% of our income. Many supporters and companies who have also been financially impacted by the pandemic are now not in a position to donate. Our fundraising team has quickly adjusted plans and accessed a small amount of emergency pharmaceutical funding for our Staying Connected and Staying Aware programmes. We have also changed our flagship community walking campaign Walk In Her Name to a virtual step challenge. Find out more about our Step Challenge, and how you can take part.  

Despite these and other changes we have made to our fundraising efforts, we are anticipating a 49% reduction in income across the year. This will heavily impact our ability to continue funding our life-saving awareness-raising, campaigning and research projects. We have already taken some immediate and significant short-term steps to reduce or cut costs across all areas of the charity and hope that these actions will enable us to weather the reduction in income. 

The hidden health cost to Covid-19 is starting to emerge 

As the world is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, cancer hasn’t stopped. Unfortunately, there is a longer-term, hidden health cost that is starting to emerge. There is a cumulative stacking of issues that will sadly be above and beyond the impact we have seen from Covid-19 — later diagnosis in a new cohort of patients, altered treatment plans that strike a careful balance of treatment and safety, and limited access to clinical trials, are likely to have an impact on ovarian cancer survival rates. In addition, existing and future research will experience cuts or cancellations, causing further delays to new and innovative treatments.

We are living in an unprecedented time of change, but Ovarian Cancer Action is determined to limit the implications on ovarian cancer patients today and in the future. 

Getting back on the road to recovery to improve survival

You may be aware that it was our intention to launch our new strategy in the autumn, in which we set ourselves the goal to increase ten-year survival rates for patients with ovarian cancer from 35% to at least 50% within 10 years. That ambition remains, but for now, we need to focus on managing the immediate Covid-19 impact and planning for the medium-term recovery.

There are many unknowns right now, and we don’t expect the road to recovery to be easy or fast, but we are hopeful that with the help of our partners, donors and volunteers, we can get back onto the right trajectory sooner rather than later.

We are planning for three scenarios. Scenario one is what our current 12-month plan is based on and means we are heavily dependent on our reserves and making cuts to our research and operational budgets. Scenarios two and three build towards recovery during 2021. They are both reliant on us starting to recover fundraising and, if we can start to get back to previous income levels, we will be able to move to scenario two and complete our existing research projects and start the new projects we awarded grants to in 2019 including immunotherapy. Scenario three will start to put us back on track for our pre-Covid-19 growth trajectory and we can really begin to address the ten-year survival goal. 

We are relieved that we have been able to speedily adapt to the radically changed circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we know there is a long road ahead to recovery and that may bring further difficult decisions the longer it takes. We also know that we are not in this alone. It is critical that we remain optimistic and confident about the future of our charity and our ability to make a real difference for women living with ovarian cancer now and those who will continue to be diagnosed in the future. 

“Ovarian Cancer Action is determined to minimise any implications that Covid-19 will have on ovarian cancer patients today, and in the future. Thank you for your support to make this possible. If you can, please continue your support. Please continue to advocate for our cause so together, we can make sure that patients get the best care during this time. Please continue to give your time and your expertise so our small team can do the best job we can. And if you can, please fundraise or donate to keep our vital research and awareness programmes moving forward.”

Dr Wayne Phillips, Chair

Thank you for your continued support, which is needed now, more than ever. 

If you have any questions about anything we have mentioned in our report, or would like to discuss how you can support Ovarian Cancer Action at this time with a member of our leadership team, please contact Kevin Webb who will arrange this for you.   

Kevin Webb
Philanthropy Manager
07973 639388