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Living Well: Delays in Cancer Screenings and Treatments Leads to Potential Increase in Mortality Rates
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Living Well: Delays in Cancer Screenings and Treatments Leads to Potential Increase in Mortality Rates

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For more than a year now, COVID-19 has impacted nearly every area of our lives. We have adjusted where we work, how we socialize, and what we do outside of our homes. From switching from in-person shopping to delivery services, to cutting back on visits with friends and even family, we have stayed distant in order to stay safe and healthy. Unfortunately, this distance has extended even into our health and wellness visits, which has the counter effect of potentially keeping us less healthy.

Even as we see access to care improving again, many people have been waiting to see their doctors for preventive care or to evaluate symptoms. This may be due a job loss that resulted in a loss of insurance, or due to fear of exposure to the virus. This delay in care has been taking its toll nationwide. In the immediate term, we are seeing the negative health impacts of people experiencing heart attack or stroke symptoms delaying a visit to the emergency room, which delays life-saving care. In the longer term, we will soon be seeing later-stage cancer diagnoses due to the current decline in cancer screenings. The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer outcomes will not fully be known for years, but there is significant concern among doctors around these current screening delays.

Fewer Cancer Diagnoses

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on recommended cancer screening and cancer care. In fact, in the United States, studies have found more than one third of adults failed to receive recommended cancer screening during the pandemic. In addition, they found that 43 percent of patients have missed routine preventive appointments due to COVID-19 fears, and an estimated 22 million cancer screenings were cancelled or missed between March and June of 2020.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical professionals recommended that routine cancer screenings and other elective medical procedures be postponed in order to prioritize urgent medical needs and reduce the spread of COVID-19. This guidance resulted in a steep drop in screening—one that we are still recovering from even as those earlier restrictions have been lifting. Many people are still wary of going into a medical office, and many lost their health insurance due to a job loss. Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that there continue to be lingering concerns about returning for healthcare.

The true problem is that with fewer screenings comes fewer diagnoses. In fact, many studies have shown that the number of cancer diagnoses was significantly lower in 2020. Though these studies show an early snapshot, they provide a peak at the impact of the pandemic on cancer diagnoses. The extent to which these delays will translate to more advanced stage disease will not be known for some time.

“The big concern with delay in cancer screening is that the cancer will be discovered in an advanced stage rather than early stage leading to the need to more extensive treatment and death from cancer,” said Dr. Erika Struble of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hematology and Medical Oncology Associates.

Screening Saves Lives

According to the latest estimates from ACS, more than 600,000 people died from cancer in the U.S. in 2020.

“The long-term impacts of these delays in diagnosis and treatments include an increase in the number of deaths from cancer and the need for more extensive treatments which will cause long-term complications,” noted Dr. Struble.

In fact, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that these delays will cause almost 10,000 excess deaths in the U.S. from breast and colorectal cancer alone over the next 10 years; however, this may be understated, as the projections are based models assuming a six-month disruption in care with a subsequent return to routine care. However, that assumption appears to be optimistic, as wellness visits and screenings are still down nationwide.

The fact is, that the earlier the cancer is detected, the more options there are for treatment, and the better the chances for survival. It is critical to return for routine wellness and screening visits not only for today’s health but also for a healthy life in the long term.

Screenings are Safe at Sentara

Sentara is committed to always keeping its patients, employees and community members safe so that there is nothing in between you and getting the best care possible. We have created extensive plans and internal guidelines to ensure you can get the care you need in the safest manner possible at any Sentara facility.

Among Sentara’s many safety measures, we are:

  • Screening everyone who comes to our facilities
  • Asking everyone who enters our facilities to wear masks
  • Ensuring our staff wears appropriate Personal Protective Equipment
  • Maintaining robust cleaning for infection prevention
  • Ensuring social distance

“We know that there are people who are still concerned about coming in for their cancer screenings,” said Dr. Struble. “We understand those concerns, but I encourage them not to delay. Sentara’s extensive safety protocols to prevent exposure to COVID are sound, so you can feel safe in our facilities.”

For more information about cancer services at Sentra Martha Jefferson, visit Sentara.com/Cancer.

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