NCI Director Encourages Reopening of Cancer Care to Prevent Future Health Crisis

In an editorial published in Science, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Norman Sharpless, MD, encouraged cancer screenings, treatment, and research to reopen, with proper guardrails in place, to prevent a spike in serious illness and death.

“Clearly, postponing procedures and deferring care as a result of the pandemic was prudent at one time, but the spread, duration, and future peaks of COVID-19 remain unclear,” wrote Dr. Sharpless. “However, ignoring life-threatening non-COVID-19 conditions such as cancer for too long may turn one public health crisis into many others.”

According to an NCI estimate, mammograms are down 75% since March, and Dr. Sharpless says that number may be conservative. An NCI model looking at breast cancer and colorectal cancer predicts upwards of 10,000 excess deaths in the U.S. over the next 10 years due to delays in care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest rise in cancer-related deaths is anticipated to come in the next 2 years, assuming cancer care rebounds within the next 6 months.

Dr. Sharpless believes that, having adapted to the first surge in coronavirus cases, hospitals and physicians can move forward with the implementation of testing, mask wearing, and social distancing. Adaptations like telemedicine and remote trial participation already in place could help cancer care reopen.

He also addressed the slowdown in cancer clinical trials, as patient enrollment has dropped and trials have been paused while resources have been reallocated to pandemic-related research.

“Many scientists and clinicians are pivoting their cancer research activities to study the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on cancer,” he wrote. “The scientific community must ensure that this pause is only temporary, because trials are the only way to make progress in developing new therapies for cancer.”

Sources: STAT, June 19, 2020; Sharpless NE. COVID-19 and Cancer. Science. 2020;368:1290.