For many people affected by cancer, navigating our new normal during the coronavirus outbreak comes with a unique set of challenges. COVID-19 has disrupted the entire continuum of healthcare in the US, including cancer screenings and diagnoses. According to a new nationwide survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), nearly two-thirds of Americans reported that their scheduled cancer screenings have been delayed or skipped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another study indicated that within less than 2 months following the start of the pandemic, average weekly new cancer diagnoses dropped by about 46% across six major types of cancers (including breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, gastric and esophageal combined).
This decline does not mean that fewer people are getting cancer, but rather it means more people may be living with undiagnosed cancer and facing significant delays in treatment. Screenings are critical for detecting cancer at the early stages, when it is more likely to be successfully treated. Delaying or skipping recommended screenings can result in many cancer cases being diagnosed at a later stage with a poorer prognosis and when cancer is harder to treat.
The reasons for postponing cancer screenings may vary – from reallocation of healthcare resources to fight COVID-19, to patients’ safety concerns about getting infected during a doctor visit, to feelings among both patients and doctors that screening “can wait.” However, if the trend continues and patients are unable to resume screening soon, more cancer cases could go undiagnosed for longer periods of time. While it is hard to predict the full impact of diagnostic delays, the National Cancer Institute predicts almost 10,000 excess deaths from breast cancer and colorectal cancer over the next decade due to missed screenings during the pandemic.
COVID-19 Adds Urgency to Cancer Screening
It is imperative that people resume getting their regular preventative screenings, such as mammograms, chest scans, colonoscopies, skin checks, and Pap/HPV tests. This is especially true for Black people who have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the US for most cancers. Since 1990, cancer-related deaths have dropped faster in Black people than White people among both men and women, largely driven by more rapid declines in Black people for lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer – saving an estimated 462,000 lives over the past 25 years. This remarkable progress must be sustained despite the disruption wrought by the coronavirus.
“Many in the black community have rationalized skipping doctor’s visits for preventative or maintenance care, not viewing them as essential during the pandemic,” said Dr. Stanley Thompson, Chief Clinical Officer of TeamHealth’s LifePoint Group and a national leader in cancer care. “Missing visits for cancer screenings can put you at risk for late detection, which can carry more severe health consequences than even COVID-19. That’s why it’s so important to safely resume these visits and encourage your family and friends to do the same as we navigate this new normal, together.”
Taking Control of Your Health
The ASCO survey revealed that 63% of respondents were worried about being behind on their cancer screening. If you’re among those concerned, don’t let fear hold you back; instead, become your own health advocate. If you’re a woman age 45+, talk to your doctor about scheduling a mammogram. If you’re a woman age 25-65, make your health a priority and schedule a pap smear when indicated. If you’re a man age 45 and older, make sure to arrange for a prostate exam sooner rather than later. If you are age 55 to 74 and have a history of heavy smoking, or smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, you should be screened for lung cancer. You should begin screening for colorectal cancer soon after turning 50, then continue getting screened at regular intervals. However, you may need to be tested earlier than 50 if you are at higher risk, if indicated. While skin cancer is uncommon in people of color, when it does occur, it is often associated with increased morbidity and mortality, which may be attributed to skin cancers being diagnosed at a more advanced stage. Check with your doctor if a skin cancer screening is right for you.
Most hospitals and healthcare settings have protocols in place to support social distancing and ensure their facilities are sanitized and safe.
A Call to Action
The world around us has changed dramatically. We have all had to adapt to a different way of living during this devastating pandemic. But cancer doesn’t go on hold for COVID-19. Optimal cancer care must balance the need to protect patients from infection with continued access to early and accurate diagnosis.
For helpful resources about maintaining wellness visits and vital cancer screenings during COVID-19, please visit www.NewNormalSameCancer.com