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Fact Checked

COVID-19 Causes Linked to Drops in Cancer Screenings and Cases

Did you miss your routine doctor’s office visit because of the COVID-19 pandemic? Did you ever reschedule? Are you or your family members overdue for any cancer screenings – a blood test? A mammogram or Pap test? A colonoscopy? 

Screening for cancer is important; when cancer is found earlier, there are more treatment options, and the treatment is usually more effective. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major drop in cancer screenings. 

Unfortunately, canceling or delaying doctor’s appointments does not cancel or delay cancer growth. For many cancers, finding cancer before it spreads throughout the body can be the difference between life and death. 

What is Cancer Screening?

Cancer screening includes tests that are done to find cancer in people without symptoms. Mammograms, Pap tests, and colonoscopies are some common examples of cancer screening tests. 

The United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) provides cancer screening recommendations. Regular screening is recommended for breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer.

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Why the Drop?

Early in the pandemic, routine doctor’s appointments (including cancer screenings) were canceled or rescheduled to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This allowed doctors to focus on health emergencies and decreased the number of people in the offices. 

Just how much did the pandemic affect cancer screening numbers?  In March 2020, a report reviewed 2.7 million people from 190 hospitals across the U.S. After comparing cancer screening rates in March 2020 to previous years, cervical and breast cancer screenings dropped 94 percent, and colorectal cancer screenings dropped 86 percent

Wait - if screening is not happening, are people still getting diagnosed with cancer? Not all cancers have screening tests or recommendations, but there has been a decrease in new cases of cancer since the pandemic. 

A study found that the number of people in the U.S. diagnosed each week with cancer dropped nearly 50% during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic. This decrease is almost certainly explained by fewer screenings, rather than less people with cancer. Other countries outside of the U.S. are also experiencing a large drop in cancer screenings due to COVID-19. 

Why Does this Matter?

At this point, we do not know what the long-term effect of the delayed screenings will be. We know that finding cancer at later stages can make it more challenging to treat. The impact of the missed cancer screenings over the last six months may last for years to come.

Due to COVID-19, the National Cancer Institute predicts overdue screenings for breast and colorectal cancer will lead to an extra 10,000 deaths over the next several years. The longer people delay routine check-ups, the longer people will not know they have cancer, allowing it to spread. 

Is it Safe to Go to the Doctor’s Office?

The pandemic is lasting longer than anyone anticipated. Even though some U.S. areas are reopening, many people are continuing to avoid the doctor’s office out of fear. 

Extra measures are taken to protect you and reduce the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specific recommendations for your doctor’s office to keep you safe, including the following: 

  • • Less appointments per day
  • • More time between patient appointments
  • • Physical distancing in the waiting room
  • • Limiting the number of people allowed at the appointment
  • • Increased disinfection and cleaning of equipment and surfaces
  • • Everyone wears a face covering
  • • Frequent handwashing

If you are due for any type of cancer screening, it is essential to have a conversation with your doctor about the risks and benefits of getting the test done. Although most cancer screenings must be completed in-person, in some instances, alternative screening options might also be available, such as an at-home test for colon cancer.

Bottom Line

The pandemic caused many cancellations – but it did not cancel cancer growth. Many people are worried about going to the doctor’s office for routine visits during the pandemic, which has decreased cancer screenings since March 2020.  

Delayed cancer screening may lead to more people being diagnosed after the cancer spreads, which is harder to treat. Talk to your doctor today about what cancer screenings you or your family members need – there is no time to lose!

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html. Published 2020. Accessed 15 September 2020. 

National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Cancer Screening Tests. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/screening/screening-tests. Updated 16 January 2019. Accessed 15 September 2020.  

 The United States Preventative ServicesTask Force. A and B Recommendations. Available from: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation-topics/uspstf-and-b-recommendations. Accessed 15 September 2020. 

Epic Health Research Network. Preventive Cancer Screenings during COVID-19 Pandemic. https://ehrn.org/wp-content/uploads/Preventive-Cancer-Screenings-during-COVID-19-Pandemic.pdf. Published 01 May 2020. Accessed 15 September 2020. 

Kaufman HW, Chen Z, Niles J, Fesko Y. Changes in the Number of US Patients With Newly Identified Cancer Before and During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(8):e2017267. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.17267. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2768946

IJerzman M, Emery J. Is a delayed cancer diagnosis a consequence of COVID-19? Pursuit. University of Melbourne. Available from: https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/is-a-delayed-cancer-diagnosis-a-consequence-of-covid-19. Published 30 April 2020. Accessed 14 August 2020.

Sharpless NE. COVID-19 and Cancer. Science. Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1290

DOI: 10.1126/science.abd3377. Available from: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6497/1290.abstract. Published 19 June 2020. Accessed 15 September 2020. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthcare Facility Guidance. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-hcf.html. Updated 28 Ju0ne 2020. Accessed 14 August 2020. 

Published October 1st, 2020 by Dr. Sara Fisher, PharmD
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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