Fewer Patients Screened for or Diagnosed With Cancer Amid Pandemic

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed critical cancer screening appointments such as mammograms and colonoscopies, meaning patients with cancer remain undiagnosed or are being diagnosed at advanced stages.

The number of patients screened for or diagnosed with cancer fell sharply in March through May 2020, and an analysis by the Epic Health Research Network found that by mid-June, the rate of screenings for breast, colon, and cervical cancers were still 29-36% lower than before the pandemic. Compared with 2019, hundreds of thousands of fewer screenings were performed in 2020.

Service disruptions, pent-up delays upon clinics reopening, inability to afford testing due to job losses during the economic downturn, and anxiety over contracting the coronavirus have all contributed to the trend.

“The fear of COVID was more tangible than the fear of missing a screen that detected cancer,” said Patrick I. Borgen, MD, chair of surgery at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY.

“We know cancers are out there,” said Barbara L. McAneny, MD, the chief executive of New Mexico Oncology Hematology Consultants, but many of her patients are staying away, even if they have insurance, because they cannot afford the deductibles or co-payments. “We’re seeing that, particularly with our poorer folks who are living on the edge anyway, living paycheck to paycheck.”

Recently, the American College of Surgeons released a statement urging patients to resume regular checkups and recommended cancer screenings. The statement cites the American Cancer Society’s estimate that 35% of Americans have missed routine cancer screenings because of the pandemic.

Sources: The New York Times, March 17, 2021; FACS.org, March 18, 2021.