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Experts say getting important cancer screenings is vital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images
  • New surveys show a stark dip in cancer screening numbers across the board since the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • One report found cervical and breast cancer screenings dropped 94 percent in March, while colorectal cancer screenings fell 86 percent compared to the 2017 to 2019 averages.
  • Medical experts stress that — given they follow all the needed precautions — hospitals are perfectly safe to visit at this time. Don’t put off getting needed, lifesaving preventive cancer screenings.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

With COVID-19 shelter-in-place guidelines putting a halt on daily life over the past few months, one unexpected result has been a sharp drop in necessary cancer screenings nationwide.

Experts say this is a worrying trend. Even though the COVID-19 outbreak is a serious public health crisis, that doesn’t mean cancer should take a back seat as a major health concern.

In May, Epic Health Research Network, which collects and reports on electronic health record data, released a study that showed a sharp decline in preventive cancer screenings across the board since the COVID-19 crisis first hit in January.

The research looked at data from 39 health systems, encompassing 190 hospitals throughout 23 states.

For a representative sample, the report assessed aggregated data from 2.7 million people who had gone in for at least one preventive screening for cervical, breast, and colorectal cancer from early 2017 to early 2020.

The results? They found that cervical and breast cancer screenings dropped 94 percent in March 2020, while colorectal cancer screenings fell 86 percent compared to the 2017 to 2019 averages.

Other research has also been showing COVID-19’s impact on cancer screening rates.

IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science reports that mammograms, colonoscopies, and Pap smears have declined by 87, 90, and 83 percent, respectively, since February — about a month before COVID-19 was declared an emergency in the United States.

PSA testing needed to detect prostate cancer was down 60 percent. CT scans for lung cancer were down by 39 percent.

Dr. Dale R. Shepard, PhD, FACP, medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, told Healthline that he and his colleagues have definitely seen a decrease in cancer screenings.

He says they’ve also noticed a decrease in people seeking treatment or second opinions for cancers that they already know about.

“Not surprising that people with no symptoms were hesitant to come in to see if they might have an early stage cancer,” he said.

Shepard says the two most common cancer screenings people receive are colonoscopy and mammography.

He says given the nature of a colonoscopy itself and the number of people needed to interact with a person receiving one, the numbers for this type of procedure have understandably dropped, as people have largely stayed inside and avoided public spaces during the height of the outbreak.

“Some places have had a 90 percent decrease in the number of colonoscopies,” Shepard added. “Some of this was driven by patients not wanting to come for the test and some as facilities shift away from what was considered nonessential at the time due to concerns about a surge in COVID-19 cases.”

While numbers have generally varied region to region and hospital to hospital, this drop in preventive screenings has been an issue nationwide.

For instance, ABC News reported that the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems witnessed new skin cancer diagnoses drop 80 percent in March from February.

They found University of Nebraska Medical Center saw its weekly influx of cancer patients slashed by half from April to May.

Mount Sinai Tisch Cancer Center in New York City saw a 30 to 50 percent drop in new patients seeking cancer care.

For Michael Sapienza, CEO of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, concern over cancer screening is personal.

Back in 2009, his mother died from colorectal cancer at only age 59. That tragedy motivated him to action, transitioning from grief to anger to a sense of purpose as a vocal advocate for colorectal cancer research and awareness.

He stresses that for people who are worried about entering a medical facility during the age of COVID-19, sitting in an “endoscopy suite is actually safer than visiting your local grocery store.”

Sapienza also stresses that your healthcare providers are practicing extreme care and caution when it comes to COVID-19, from wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and physical distancing to sanitizing the suite between procedures.

He says that if you’re still too squeamish about entering a hospital, talk to your doctor about getting an at-home stool DNA colorectal cancer test, like Cologuard.

“Even though the world is crazy with COVID-19 and protests and the economy, this disease does not stop,” Sapienza said.

Shepard echoes those thoughts. He says it applies to all cancers.

“The risk for developing cancer doesn’t decrease just because there is a pandemic,” he said.

In essence, handwashing and physical distancing, while preventive measures for this COVID-19 outbreak, won’t reduce your risk for cancer.

He says it’s “absolutely essential” that we continue the rigorous screening and treatment for cancer and other medical conditions, even during this difficult time.

“Screening finds cancers that can be cured, where treatment makes people live longer. Not screening for cancer leading to a surge of patients with poorer outcomes due to a late diagnosis can be considered another adverse effect of COVID-19,” Shepard added.

He emphasizes that Cleveland Clinic screens everyone who enters for temperature and asks them about the presence of any possible COVID-19 symptoms.

They’re also outfitted with numerous hand-sanitizing stations, and all caregivers and medical personnel are required to wear masks.

“We are sanitizing rooms between patients, and the valet drivers are wiping all high-touch surfaces inside and outside the cars. We recognize that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, routine healthcare must continue,” Shepard said.

As increasingly more cities and high-density parts of the country reopen throughout the summer, will that dip in cancer screenings start to reverse? Will people be more comfortable heading to their local hospital?

“Everyone is struggling with what the world will look like as we continue to search for how to best deal with the risks associated with COVID-19. We will learn more about the virus and how to minimize risk,” Shepard said.

“As people become accustomed to what we are doing to keep them safe, it is very likely that we can return to a more normal rate of cancer screening and treatment.”

Sapienza always thinks back to his mother’s memory. He says had she been screened at a hospital sooner, or taken an at-home fecal immunochemical test (FIT) for colorectal cancer, she would be alive today.

Again, cancer doesn’t wait.

“That’s unfortunately a reality for people if they don’t go in. They need to make sure they get screened,” Sapienza said.

New surveys show a stark dip in cancer screening numbers across the board since COVID-19 hit and shelter-at-home orders were put in place.

One report found cervical and breast cancer screenings dropped 94 percent in March, while colorectal cancer screenings fell 86 percent compared to the 2017 to 2019 averages.

Medical experts stress that — given they follow all the needed precautions — hospitals are perfectly safe to visit at this time. Don’t put off getting needed, lifesaving preventive cancer screenings.