Experts worry patients delaying breast cancer screenings over COVID-19 fears
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, experts say cancer diagnoses were down nearly 50%, but not because the disease is going away.
The issue is that an increasing number of patients are believed to be delaying health screenings out of fear of contracting the virus, Dr. Susan K. Boolbol, chief of breast surgery and the breast program at Nuvance Health, told Fox News.
Boolbol pointed to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which indicated that diagnoses for six types of cancer (breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, gastric, and esophageal) dropped in March and April.
Researchers found that the weekly number of newly diagnosed cancer patients had dropped by 46.4% on average for all six types of cancer from March 1 to April 18 when compared with the baseline periods.
The largest decrease occurred in the weekly number of breast cancer diagnoses, with a drop of about 51.8%. By comparison, the smallest decrease occurred among pancreatic cancer diagnoses, which dropped 24.7%.
These statistics are deeply concerning to Boolbol, who stressed that cancer “didn’t take a break” just because the world is grappling with a vicious pandemic.
“Cancer is not going away,” she said. “We are just not diagnosing it, and that is very worrisome.”
Annual health screenings are in place in an effort to diagnose cancer early, she said. If they are neglected, patients can run the risk of being diagnosed after their cancer has already progressed to a later stage.
“We really, for a multitude of reasons, don’t want that to occur,” she said.
The pandemic hasn’t made it easy for patients to navigate when and how to maintain regular health care checkups. The reality is, health care was “drastically affected” since the onset of the pandemic, Boolbol said.
Initially, the goal, especially for people in the Northeast during the height of the crisis, “was to keep people out of the offices and out of the hospitals.” Screenings were essentially put on hold for some time and elective surgeries in many places were halted to allocate room for COVID-19 patients.
“And breast cancer … is an elective procedure,” Boolbol said. An elective procedure, compared to an “emergent” surgery, does not have to be done within 24 hours and can be scheduled at a later date, she noted.
Patients who were already diagnosed with cancer, however, were still receiving treatment, just in other ways. For instance, if someone needed chemotherapy after surgery, that patient would instead receive chemotherapy first. The surgery still happened, just at a later time compared to pre-pandemic times, she said.
“Again, just delaying surgery, but still treating their cancer in a very acceptable way of treating in that way,” Boolbol added.
Since then, facilities around the nation quickly adapted to the “new norm.” Elective procedures were given the green light to restart and offices had armed themselves with safety procedures to keep both patients and health care workers safe.
As a result, “it is critically important for patients to understand that health care offices, medical offices, hospitals have really made great strides in keeping everyone safe,” she said.
At Nuvance, for example, Boolbol says appointments have been spaced out so patients don’t overlap. They have also allocated extra time between appointments to give staff adequate time to clean exam rooms. And instead of waiting inside, patients are instructed to remain inside their cars until their scheduled appointment time.
Although their “goal is to make patients feel comfortable enough to come back and take care of their health,” Boolbol recognizes that this time is enormously stressful for patients who now have to endure medical appointments alone. And that’s not just checkups with the doctor. It also means enduring chemotherapy, radiation and even surgeries without the comfort of their loved ones.
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