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Cancer screenings fell early in pandemic, study finds

Cancer screenings fell early in pandemic, study finds
Cancer screenings in the United States decreased substantially at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has found. File Photo by CristinaMuraca/Shutterstock

April 29 (UPI) -- The number of people screened for three of the most common cancers in the United States declined sharply last spring during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, an analysis published Thursday by JAMA Oncology found.

Compared to the same period in 2019, screenings for breast cancer decreased by just over 90% between March 1 and May 31, while diagnostic evaluations for colon and rectal cancers dropped by nearly 80%, the data showed.

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Similarly, there were 63% fewer prostate cancer screenings during these three months in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, the researchers said.

Collectively for all three cancers, about 9.4 million fewer screening exams were performed between March and May of last year, compared to the prior year.

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"That's a lot of cancer screening to make up, [so] there needs to be a concerted public health educational campaign across the country to reinforce the importance of cancer screening," study co-author Dr. Ronald Chen told UPI in an email.

"Hospitals across the country also need to devote effort to contact patients to reschedule canceled screening tests, in order to minimize the delay in screening and cancer diagnoses from the missed tests," said Chen, chair of radiation oncology at the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City.

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Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease in the United States, with prostate and colorectal cancers third and fourth, respectively, after lung cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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Even with the downturn in screening, attributed at least in part to public reluctance to visit healthcare facilities due to fears of exposure to the coronavirus, more than 1.8 million people nationally were diagnosed with cancer in 2020, the institute estimates.

For this study, Chen and his colleagues analyzed health insurance claims data for more than 60 million adults in the United States over a three-year period.

Twenty percent of those included in the analysis were covered by Medicare, while the rest had private insurance.

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Although screening rates for all three cancers began to rebound in June, as pandemic-related restrictions lifted in some areas, they remained about 15% lower for breast cancer and just over 13% lower for colon and rectal cancer, as of the end of July, compared to the same period in 2019.

"Routine cancer screening is important in order to detect cancers at an early stage when [they are] most curable," Chen said.

"Unfortunately, by causing cancellations of appointments and cancer screenings, COVID-19 will indirectly cause an increase in cancer deaths -- another negative consequence of COVID-19 that has not yet received much public attention," he said.

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