The COVID-19 crisis has had dramatic impact on many aspects of our lives and health care. Early in the pandemic, to prioritize urgent needs and decrease the virus’s spread, many non-emergent healthcare needs were delayed, including routine cancer screenings. From March to May of 2020, there was a dramatic decrease in cancer screening across the U.S. Breast, cervical, colorectal and lung cancer screenings decreased by 80 percent or more during these months compared to the same time frame in previous years.
Likewise, the number of new cancer diagnoses decreased over the same time frame. Fortunately, cancer screening has begun to rebound, but it is not back to pre-pandemic levels. It is estimated that the U.S. now has a 9.4 million cancer screening deficit. This is so important because cancer screening helps detect cancer in its earliest stages when treatment is easier and cancer is more likely to be cured. Late cancer diagnoses, possibly at an incurable stage, may be one indirect, adverse consequence of the pandemic.
There is concern that as the delta variant causes a surge in COVID cases, cancer screenings may start to decline again, as they did in the spring of 2020, but they do not have to. Health care facilities that provide cancer screening tests have precautions in place to ensure that screenings are done as safely as possible. Also, unlike early in the pandemic, we now have highly effective vaccines available to protect us against COVID and its many untoward effects. I would encourage anyone who has not already done so to get a COVID vaccine.
One in three Americans will develop cancer in his or her lifetime. Cancer won’t stop because of the pandemic. Social distancing, face masks and hand washing will not stop cancer, but screenings can find cancer at its earliest stages when it is most curable, which is why it is essential to keep up with them during the pandemic.
Cancer screenings are recommended for breast, cervical, colorectal and lung cancer. If your cancer screening has been postponed or delayed because of COVID-19 or for any reason, get with your healthcare provider to get back on schedule.
Dr. Pamela Tuli is a hematologist-oncologist practicing with The Medical Oncology Group – Memorial Physician Clinics. She can be contacted at (228) 575-1234.