By Michelle Zhang, MD, Oncology & Hematology Clinic, Valley Medical Center
As we begin 2022, I reflect on the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives at so many levels. Here at Valley’s Oncology & Hematology Clinic, despite the challenges of the pandemic, my colleagues and I are proud to have been caring for arguably the most vulnerable group of patients without interruption.
Unfortunately, there is a growing body of data that confirms my suspicions since the early days of the pandemic—there’s been a substantial negative impact on early diagnosis and treatment of various cancers. Recently, a large-scale study published in the journal Cancer of U.S. veterans from over 1400 U.S. hospitals found a 23% decline in new cancer diagnosis in 2020 related to the pandemic!
Huge Increase in Delayed Cancer Screenings Due to Pandemic
We all agree that early detection and timely treatment can be the difference between life and death for cancer patients, so it’s extremely important for patients to go to the hospital for regular screening. However, due to the pandemic, doctors have been noticing significant delays in patients seeking care. According to a study published by Preventive Medicine in April 2020, the total number of breast and cervical cancer screening tests declined by 87% and 84%
respectively. This is a multifaceted problem: factors include curtailing of non-urgent health care; reduced healthcare staffing (the truth is that we are all tired and stressed out); and lack of health insurance coverage due to job loss. Another important factor is patient fear of potential COVID-19 exposure at medical facilities.
Delayed Cancer Screenings can be Life-Threatening
One of my patients, a previously healthy, 40-year old woman, came in recently with a nine-month history of blood in her stool and gradual weight loss. She was hesitant to come to the hospital due to COVID-19. However, as her clothes grew loose and family members implored her to be seen by a doctor, she finally came in. Unfortunately, what likely would have been a curable cancer if caught early, was now a large cancer in her colon that had already spread to her liver and lung. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: I could describe dozens of cases since the pandemic started that tragically overlap with this patient’s story.
Schedule Your Cancer Screenings That are Due or Past-Due
As a cancer specialist, I urge you not to wait on that nagging symptom or let nervousness about COVID-19 further delay an overdue screening test. We completely understand concerns about contracting COVID-19. However, hospitals and healthcare facilities are the locations with the strictest COVID-19-related protocols in order to keep patients and staff safe. Though we have come quite far with vaccine advances in addressing COVID-19, the end of the pandemic is yet unknown. The introduction of new variants could prolong the pandemic even more and continue negatively impacting cancer care. Your health is always a priority, now more than ever.