The cancer screening time bomb

Routine cancer screening is essential to detect cancers early when it is most curable. The consequence of millions of people missing cancer screenings because of the COVID pandemic is a delay in detecting cancer, which results in cancer progressing to a more advanced stage. According to a study published in JAMA Oncology, a publication of the American Medical Association, nearly 22 million cancer screenings in the U.S. failed to happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cancer screening provides one of the best ways to find cancer early, at a time when it’s most treatable. With few exceptions, multiple cancer screening tests are recommended for early cancer detection across any adult’s lifetime.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and National Comprehensive Cancer Network report that an estimated 22 million cancer screenings were missed or canceled between March and June of last year, resulting in declines in screening rates for breast, colon, and cervical cancers by as much as 94 percent overall (compared with historical averages) according to Epic Health Research Network.

Data show a roughly 46 percent combined decrease in weekly new diagnoses across six different cancers, according to a study published in August 2020 in JAMA Network Open. That decline is unlikely due to an organic decrease in the occurrence of those cancers, say experts, but rather to cancers that would typically have been diagnosed going undetected due to missed screenings.

There needs to be a concerted public health education campaign to reinforce the importance of cancer screening. Hospitals across the country also need to devote effort to contact patients to reschedule canceled screening tests to minimize the delay in screening and cancer diagnoses from the missed tests.

 If the downward trend in screenings and treatments continues, it will lead to a public health catastrophe. And though oncologists are reporting an increase in tests and screenings over the last few months, the numbers have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.

People delaying cancer screenings won’t come to light for many years, but it will be devastating. Physicians should be reminding their patients of the importance of early cancer screening, especially for high-risk patients.