A pause in screenings may increase number of missed cancer diagnoses

June 15, 2021 in Preventive Care  •  By Miles Varn, MD

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. last year, most hospitals and physician’s offices paused elective and preventive care services to focus on the influx of COVID patients and to reduce the risk of patients being exposed to the virus. Cancer screenings were one of the types of services that were paused. In 2020, this pause resulted in an 86% to 94% drop in preventive cancer screenings compared to the same time period during the three previous years according to data gathered from 2.7 million electronic patient records representing 190 hospitals in 23 states.

Although screenings have been rebounding and are approaching pre-pandemic levels, physicians have raised concerns that missed and delayed cancer screenings will lead to an increase in the number of people diagnosed with more advanced cancer, and possibly, 10,000 extra cancer deaths over the next ten years. Data from the American Society of Radiation Oncologists found that two-thirds of the radiation oncologists surveyed noted new patients were being diagnosed with more advanced cancers.

Physicians are now trying to make up for lost time, reaching out to patients to encourage them to schedule preventive cancer screenings and other preventive care appointments. For patients who are still anxious about getting screened and potential exposure to healthcare staff and other patients who may not be vaccinated, physicians recommend calling your doctor to talk about your concerns. Ask what steps are being taken to protect patients, for example physical distancing in the waiting room, limiting the number of patients in the waiting room, required face masks for patients and staff, and regular cleaning and disinfection of equipment and surfaces.

You should also talk with your doctor about the risks of postponing screening. Factors to discuss include your personal and family history, when you were last screened, a past history of cancer, and other factors that may increase your risk of cancer including genetic mutations associated with increased cancer risk, lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol use, excess sun exposure, and your age.

You can also ask your doctor if there are other appropriate forms of screening. For example, there are several different types of screening tests for colorectal cancer, including fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) or a stool DNA test that can be done at home, although colonoscopy remains the gold standard for screening.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms that may be related to cancer, such as a lump in the breast, changes in a mole, or blood in the stool, contact your doctor right away to schedule the needed diagnostic tests and follow-up. A health advisor can help you arrange expedited appointments and in-person and remote second opinions on your test results, diagnosis, and treatment recommendation.