At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical experts worked to keep as many people as possible safe and healthy.
As a result, specific medical tests and procedures were deemed nonessential and put on hold. Cancer screenings fell into this group, according to the American Cancer Society.
As the world locked down last spring, the number of cancer screenings dropped quickly and substantially.
According to data from the Epic Health Research Network, rates of colon cancer screening dropped 86%, and breast and cervical cancer screening dropped 94% by early May 2020.
What’s more, these rates have stayed low.
By mid-June 2020, rates of breast, colon, and cervical cancer screenings were between 29 and 36% lower than their pre-pandemic levels. And the American Society of Clinical Oncology says that the cancer screening rates have remained low even into 2021.
What do fewer cancer screenings mean for patients?
As you can imagine, the cancelation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cancer screening appointments has had a significant impact on the health of Americans. According to the American Association of Cancer Research, one estimate puts the number of additional breast and colorectal cancer deaths due to the lack of screening at around 10,000.
“The risk of delayed screenings is more advanced disease upon detection, rather than early-onset disease,” says Jessica MacIntyre, an oncology nurse practitioner at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “If you get a routine screening, you are more likely to catch cancer early. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that you will find more advanced disease. Now, we are seeing the effects of waiting for a screening that should have occurred earlier.”
What is the future of cancer screening?
With more people getting vaccinated and more safety measures put in place, the critical work of cancer screening can safely continue. Both the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology have issued statements encouraging patients to proceed with their cancer screening procedures as recommended by their physicians.
According to MacIntyre, experts at Sylvester are resuming as many screenings as possible. “We are putting a lot of marketing campaigns into screening and advertising the need to get people back into the screening state of mind,” she says. ”Hopefully, this will promote more awareness of what people can do to prevent cancers.”
The bottom line?
Cancer screening is one of the most effective tools for preventing cancer deaths. “Cancer screening can save your life,” says MacIntyre. “If you get screened, you can catch it early and have a chance to be cured. If you wait, you may get a late diagnosis, and the cancer becomes more difficult to treat.”
Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
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