Researchers estimate that tens of thousands of diagnoses for common cancers in the U.S. have been or will be missed or delayed, adding to the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted upon Americans.
More than 80,000 diagnoses of five common cancers are projected to be lost from March until early June, a report by the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science shows.
“Cancer screenings — a critical part of cancer control — appear to have fallen sharply since movement restrictions and social distancing measures were implemented,” the report states.
The number of mammograms has dropped by 87% since February. Colonoscopies have declined by 90% while pap smears decreased by 83%, according to the study. Testing for prostate cancer is down by 60%, and CT scans for lung cancer was 39% lower.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who carries the genetic mutation linked with increased breast cancer risk, said at a briefing last week that fewer screenings is one consequence of the country staying shut down due to COVID-19.
“There are real consequences for that,” Ms. McEnany said. “I carry BRCA 2 mutation, so I’m someone who is regularly screened for breast cancer until I got my mastectomy and when I went to my cancer hospital for screening, I didn’t see as many people in the halls, and that is quite frightening because the consequence of that is this.”
Diagnostics for screening and monitoring cancer were stable through March 2019 to February 2020, but dramatically declined in March and came to a near “standstill” by the first week in April, the report shows.
Patient interactions with oncologists, based on medical and pharmacy claims, declined by 20% since February, varying by tumor type. Patients with typically aggressive tumors or diagnosed at late stages continued to see oncologists in March at similar rates in February. Oncology visits by patients with tumors that typically are less aggressive or diagnosed early dropped 20% to 50% in March.
“This will all result in us, over the next six months, probably a year, identifying more cancers at a slightly higher stage,” said Dr. John Williams, a breast cancer surgeon in Northern Virginia and chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel. “And when we identify cancers at a more advanced stage, the outcomes, despite all of our efforts to cure cancer, are less effective. So this is a national problem as a result of the covid pandemic.”
Dr. Williams noted that cancer screenings vary from region to region due to the nature of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Cancer patients, particularly those getting chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant, might be at higher risk for serious illness if they get infected with COVID-19 due to their weakened immune systems.
As stay-at-home orders relax, health centers in some parts of the U.S. are starting to schedule screening tests and exams again with certain precautions.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) says it’s important for patients who are overdue for a screening to talk with their physicians to determine the best option.
Patients should consider the risk for the type of cancer they are being screened for versus the risk from COVID-19, the type of screening test needed, how common the respiratory illness is in their area, the risk of complications by a coronavirus infection and protective measures health centers are taking.
According to the ACS, the U.S. will see about 1.8 million new cancer cases and more than 606,500 cancer deaths this year.