COVID-19: Americans Keep Canceling Cancer Screenings

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Photo: USA Today

A recent survey suggests more than a third of Americans have missed scheduled cancer screenings because of COVID-19, concerning health experts who warn this could be another fatal consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prevent Cancer Foundation released survey results of more than 1,000 respondents that found about 35% of Americans have missed routine cancer screenings due to COVID-19 fears. Additionally, 43% of Americans have missed medical appointments.

“The survey shows that, in the wake of the pandemic, people are afraid to go to their doctors. ... What we need everyone to know is that missing appointments puts you at much higher risk for serious health issues,” said Carolyn “Bo” Aldigé, founder and CEO of the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

The findings come a month after National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Norman E. Sharpless said the lack of screenings and treatments could result in almost 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancer in the next decade, based on modeling predictions that were published June 19 in the medical magazine Science.

According to Sharpless, screening and treatment for these two types of cancers account for about one-sixth of all cancer deaths. The number of excess deaths per year would peak in the next year or two, and that’s a conservative prediction as it doesn’t account for other cancers, the NCI director said in the June editorial. 

“Absolutely we see that a lot of people are fearful of getting out,” said. Dr. Therese Bevers, medical director of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “They have either canceled and not rescheduled or postponed their cancer screening.”

The hospital setting has been made safer by restricting visitors, having administrative staff work from home, testing everyone in the hospital, and giving every patient medical-grade masks when they walk through the door.

But patients are still hesitant. And Bevers has already seen advanced disease in some patients who have rescheduled their visits. While this may not be the case for everyone, she said doctors won’t know for sure until patients visit their office for a screening.

“I don’t have any issues with scheduling up to two months,” she said. “But if you’ve been rescheduling since February or March, it’s probably time to get serious about how to get your screening.”

Dr. Jeffrey Drebin, chair of the department of surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said pushing back scheduled screenings means also pushing back cancer treatments that could potentially save someone’s life.

Sometimes, even a month or two substantially reduces a chance curing a patient because of delays in surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments, he said.

Screening is especially important for patients who have a history with cancer, whether they battled the disease before or it runs in their family.

“There’s little question that screening for cancer is associated with a reduced risk of dying from cancer,” he said.

More than 600,000 people die of cancer every year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins data show nearly 150,000 recorded deaths from COVID-19. 

“People should understand that they are more likely to die from cancer that has progressed as they sit at home to prevent COVID-19 ... than they are to die from COVID-19,” Bevers said.

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