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Cancer Screenings Decreased Dramatically During Height of Pandemic

Studies showed significant decreases in the number of screenings for breast, colorectal, and cervical cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data is part of a larger trend away from public health services, likely due to a fear of contracting the virus in doctors’ offices.

“Cancer screening remains an important tool to fight cancer incidence and morbidity and mortality caused by these diseases worldwide,” says JAMA Oncology lead author Paolo Boffetta, MD. “And the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly affected public health services, including cancer screening tests, during parts or throughout the entire pandemic.”

Dr. Boffetta and colleagues at Stony Brook and the University of Bologna in Italy compiled cancer screening data from 19 countries to make their determinations.

The most prominent decreases in screenings occurred during the first half of the pandemic. From January 2020 to October 2020, breast cancer screenings decreased over 35 percent, colorectal screenings decreased over 41 percent, and cervical screenings decreased a whopping 54 percent worldwide.

Cancer screenings are an important part of beginning treatment early for patients

According to the researchers, the reasons for decreased screenings are complex and cannot be fully analyzed. But, “stay-at-home orders, people’s fear of the infection, and the avoidance of non-urgent medical treatment and care, limited access to in-person medical examinations, and the reorganization of hospital departments” likely all contributed to the downward trends.

The United States faced decreases in all areas, too, but did not see the same percentage drops as the worldwide totals.

“Regular screening for cancer can help save lives. This important study is further evidence of how critical it is to get people back on track with their regular screening tests following COVID-19,” said Dr. William Dahut, chief scientific officer at the American Cancer Society. “Screening campaigns like our Get Screened campaign continue to aim to increase cancer screening rates by raising awareness about the need for recommended screenings for breast, cervical, colorectal, prostate, and lung cancers.”

Dahut also emphasized the protocols in place at the public health level meant to protect patients.

“Screening is safe, effective, and accessible,” he said. “Facilities that offer screening services have COVID-19 safety precautions in place. Many states have low or reduced-cost screening programs to help ensure that everyone has access, even people who don’t have insurance or a primary care doctor.”

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