Japan’s COVID-19 epidemic is putting people’s lives at risk by causing postponements of cancer screenings, reducing opportunities for detection and treatment in the early stages of cancer.
Experts are urging people to take examinations once screening providers resume operations.
In April, the health ministry urged the country’s 47 prefectures to call off cancer screenings in principle to prioritize coronavirus-related treatments. The move was also aimed at avoiding the three Cs of closed and crowded spaces involving close contact, seen as high-risk environments during the virus crisis.
After the government-declared state of emergency over the virus was lifted last month, the government called for prefectures to resume screenings in line with each region’s infection levels and after taking appropriate prevention measures.
Group cancer screenings have been canceled nationwide, with Sapporo suspending screenings from April 14 to the end of May, and the city of Osaka halting checkups from April through this month. Many medical examinations at companies have also been canceled or postponed.
The National Cancer Center Hospital in Tokyo has also suspended screenings as part of general checkups since March 31 to deal with novel coronavirus patients. It has gradually resumed screenings this month, and will seek to fully return to pre-epidemic levels by October.
Cancer has been the leading cause of death in Japan for around four decades. According to the national cancer center’s statistics for 2010 to 2011, the five-year survival rate for patients with lung cancer, which has the highest death toll, drops substantially as the disease progresses. The survival rate was 81.6 percent for stage 1 cancer, 46.7 percent for stage 2, 22.6 percent for stage 3 and 5.2 percent for stage 4.
“Colorectal cancer has the possibility of advancing a stage in six months,” Takahisa Matsuda, head of the cancer screening center at the hospital, said. “The discovery of cancers in patients who might be saved could be delayed by halts in screenings.”
Matsuda, a colorectal cancer expert, said that some 60 percent of colorectal cancer detections in screenings are of cancers in early stages, while around 80 percent of detections after the patient experiences symptoms are of cancers that have already progressed.
But hospitals also face challenges in resuming screenings.
“Endoscopies come with risks of novel coronavirus infections, so we need protective wear and goggles,” Matsuda said. The hospital is suffering from a shortage of protective wear and staff are making do with raincoats, he said.
It is also reducing the number of screenings to prevent crowding the facility with patients and staff. As the hospital juggles screenings with protective measures against infection risks, it is expected to take a while before it can resume regular levels of screenings.