The pandemic forced many Americans to stay indoors and, for many, that meant missing or delaying annual checkups and screenings that are designed to catch certain illnesses early, especially cancers.
As a result of patients missing those important screenings, there was an uptick in certain cancers and doctors say for fast-growing cancers like breast cancer or lung cancer, that could be dangerous for a patient.
According to the National Cancer Institute, just over 15,000 patients were screened for cancer between March and June of 2020 — a big difference from that same time in 2019 when over 60,000 patients were screened for cancer.
“During the height of the pandemic and a little bit at the onset of the pandemic, what we were seeing is that patients we not coming in for their screening tests,” said Dr. Sonia Chadha, primary care physician at Amit Agarwal MD PC.
Chadha explained that screenings can detect precancerous and cancerous cells in their early stages. However, with the drop in screenings, there was also a drop in diagnoses.
“Some of these cancers were not caught early enough and therefore then leading to a higher morbidity and mortality. The later a cancer is diagnosed in its stage, the harder it is to treat,” Chadha said.
Cancers that currently have screenings available are cervical, colon, lung and breast and they all saw a decline last year. Chadha said fear of catching COVID-19 contributed as well as less available appointments for patients.
“If you have a patient who is interested to come in, let’s say, for a colonoscopy, that does require a big set up, it requires cleaning all the surfaces. So as patients were being spread out, then less openings or less appointments were being offered to patients as well,” Chadha said.
While doctors encouraged patients who are young and healthy to stay home unless there was an emergency, seniors were encouraged to keep their appointments.
“Other patients who are a little bit older with chronic diseases, such as diabetes perhaps, or hypertension, or hyperlipidemia, or a history of heart disease. We were asking them to come in more frequently so we can keep track of their risk factors,” Chadha said.
She also said important vaccines that children get for measles, mumps and rubella also saw a drop in numbers because parents were not bringing their children to their pediatricians.
Meantime, the National Cancer Institute reports that the number of patients being screened is crawling upward, but it has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.