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Oncologists are concerned about an expected increase in cancer diagnoses this year. Mireya Acierto/Getty Images
  • Oncologists are expressing concerns that there could be an increase in cancer diagnoses later this year, in particular those involving late stages of the disease.
  • They say the reason could stem from people postponing cancer screenings due to fears and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They are urging people who skipped screenings during the pandemic to make appointments soon for preventive procedures.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

However, many people skipped preventive tests such as cancer screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has the national oncology community on edge about what cancer cases in the United States might look like in the second half of 2022.

The concerns center on the substantial decrease in cancer screenings and how that is likely to translate into more late-stage cancer diagnoses.

“It left a lot of people afraid to go to the doctor’s office or hospital or even take public transportation because of the virus,” Dr. Debra Patt, an oncologist and breast cancer specialist in Austin, Texas, and executive vice president of Texas Oncology, told Healthline.

Then, the situation got worse, “with supply chain shortages, staffing shortages at cancer clinics, and more,” Patt explained.

Patt is one of several oncologists Healthline interviewed who expect this scenario to continue being played out nationwide for the foreseeable future.

The physicians told Healthline that people would continue to show up at cancer hospitals and oncology offices with more advanced stages of their disease than they might have had if they had been screened earlier.

Several studies confirm these conclusions.

Research from the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego looked at early stage and late-stage breast and colorectal cancer diagnosed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study showed that in breast cancer, almost 64 percent of people presented with stage 1 in 2019, but in 2020, that number decreased to 51 percent.

Also, only 2 percent presented with stage 4 breast cancer in 2019, but that jumped to 6 percent in 2020.

In addition, the researchers reported that from January through March 2021, nearly 42 percent of women presented with stage 1, and 8 percent presented with stage 4 breast cancer.

Study authors wrote that “the incidence of late-stage presentation of colorectal and breast cancers at our institution has increased since the start of the pandemic in 2020, corresponding with a decrease in the early-stage presentation of these cancers.”

The study concluded, “Patients who have delayed preventative care during the pandemic should be encouraged to resume treatment as soon as possible.”

Dr. Sandip P. Patel, an oncologist and director of clinical trials at Moores Cancer Center, told Healthline that the decrease in cancer screening during COVID-19 is a major concern for everyone who works in oncology.

“Many of these cancers in late stages are as lethal and sometimes more lethal than even COVID-19, which has been sadly the most lethal infectious disease we have had in generations,” Patel said.

He emphasized that cancer screening can be done safely in healthcare environments in which everyone is still masked, and health team members are required to be vaccinated.

“These lifesaving screening procedures can be done safely from a COVID-19 standpoint,” he said.

“I would strongly urge folks to get their appropriate healthcare and cancer screenings, as, unfortunately, cancers and pre-cancers won’t take a time out for the pandemic,” Patel added.

A recent multiple center study from the American Cancer Society looked at the impact of COVID-19 on cancers among veterans who seek their healthcare from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The study showed that from 2018 through 2020, there were 4.1 million cancer-related encounters, 3.9 million relevant procedures, and 251,647 new cancers diagnosed.

Compared with the annual averages in 2018 through 2019, colonoscopies in 2020 decreased by 45 percent, and prostate biopsies, chest-computed tomography scans, and cystoscopies decreased by 29 percent, 10 percent, and 21 percent, respectively.

“New cancer diagnoses decreased by 13 percent to 23 percent. These drops varied by state and continued to accumulate despite reductions in pandemic-related restrictions,” the study authors wrote.

The authors identified “substantial reductions” in procedures used to diagnose cancer and subsequent reductions in new diagnoses of cancer across the United States because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to substantial reductions in new cancers being diagnosed,” the study authors concluded.