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Fewer Breast Cancers Being Diagnosed During COVID-19 Pandemic

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Far fewer cases of breast and five other cancers are being diagnosed in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study.

The research was published online on Aug. 4, 2020, by JAMA Network Open. Read “Changes in the Number of US Patients With Newly Identified Cancer Before and During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic.”

COVID-19 and breast cancer

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in humans and animals. The relatively new coronavirus we’ve all heard so much about is called SARS-CoV-2, and the illness it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019, which is abbreviated as COVID-19.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is very, very contagious — about 3 times as contagious as the flu virus. It spreads mainly through droplets of fluid produced when a person coughs or sneezes. People who are within 6 feet of an infected person may then inhale or otherwise get the droplets into their noses, mouths, or eyes.

To date, there is no vaccine or completely effective treatment for COVID-19.

Because COVID-19 is so contagious, and to save healthcare resources for people diagnosed with COVID-19, many hospitals and other healthcare facilities delayed or cancelled elective procedures beginning in March 2020. Elective procedures included anything that didn’t need to be done to save someone’s life. Breast cancer screening was considered an elective procedure, so many mammograms and other types of cancer screening were delayed or cancelled. Some breast cancer surgeries and other treatments also were delayed, changed, or cancelled.

COVID-19 did not hit the United States evenly. Some states reported thousands of cases, while others reported only a few hundred. So delays in cancer screening and diagnosis were different in different places. The researchers who did this study wanted to know the difference in the number of people newly diagnosed with cancer before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the study

To do the study, the researchers looked at medical records of people in the United States who received any type of test through Quest Diagnostics and whose doctors then gave them a diagnosis of one of six types of cancer:

  • breast
  • colorectal
  • lung
  • pancreatic
  • gastric
  • esophageal

The people had testing from Jan. 1, 2018, to April 18, 2020.

The researchers considered Jan. 6, 2019, to Feb. 29, 2020, as the baseline pre-pandemic time. March 1 to April 18, 2020, was considered the COVID-19 pandemic period.

Overall, the study included 278,788 people:

  • 258,598 (92.8%) diagnosed during the baseline period
  • 20,180 (7.8%) diagnosed during the pandemic period

Of the people in the study:

  • 209,478 (75.1%) were women
  • 66.1 years was the average age

During the baseline period, the average number of people newly diagnosed per week with specific cancers was:

  • 2,208 with breast cancer
  • 946 with colorectal cancer
  • 695 with lung cancer
  • 271 with pancreatic cancer
  • 96 with gastric cancer
  • 94 with esophageal cancer

During the pandemic, the weekly average number of people diagnosed with these six cancers dropped by 46.4%. Specifically, breast cancer diagnoses dropped by 51.8% — from 2,208 to 1,064.

“Our results indicate a significant decline in newly identified patients with 6 common types of cancer, mirroring findings from other countries,” the researchers wrote. “The Netherlands Cancer Registry has seen as much as a 40% decline in weekly cancer incidence, and the United Kingdom has experienced a 75% decline in referrals for suspected cancer since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented.

“While residents have taken to social distancing, cancer does not pause,” they continued. “The delay in diagnosis will likely lead to presentation at more advanced stages and poorer clinical outcomes. One study suggests a potential increase of 33,890 excessive cancer deaths in the United States.”

What this means for you

When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, many medical procedures considered non-urgent were delayed or cancelled. This was primarily for two reasons:

  • to save medical resources, including doctors’ and technicians’ time, personal protective equipment, medicines, and emergency room and intensive care unit beds, for people who were infected with COVID-19
  • to help reduce the risk of people becoming infected with COVID-19 by keeping them out of hospitals and other care facilities where COVID-19 patients were being treated

As time has passed, doctors have seen how protective procedures, such as wearing a face mask, washing your hands, maintaining physical distancing, and avoiding gathering with people in a group, have helped slow the spread of the virus.

So now many facilities are once again offering breast cancer screening. In fact, because many facilities have been closed for several months, you may find you can call and get an appointment for your mammogram the same week.

Most doctors agree that breast cancer that is diagnosed early is typically easier to treat and offers the best survival chances. Regular screening for breast cancer, including annual mammograms and breast exams by a medical professional, is important for everyone.

If your annual mammogram was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Breastcancer.org urges you to call your facility and reschedule. If you’re concerned about COVID-19, it makes sense to ask what steps are being taken to protect you from the virus. Many facilities have hotlines you can call. It also makes sense for you to take steps on your own to protect yourself from COVID-19, including:

  • not touching your face while you are at the facility
  • wearing a face mask
  • using hand sanitizer when you leave the facility
  • washing your hands as soon as you get home

Of course, if you have any COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, or loss of sense of smell, cancel your appointment, get tested for COVID-19, and self-quarantine for the required amount of time if you test positive.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser


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