The COVID-19 pandemic increases the number of late-stage cancer diagnoses, say UCSD researchers
The COVID-19 pandemic increases the number of late-stage cancer diagnoses, say UCSD researchers

The COVID-19 pandemic increases the number of late-stage cancer diagnoses, say UCSD researchers

The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the use of general health care such as routine medical examinations, leading to cancers being diagnosed at later stages, researchers from UC San Diego reported on February 15.

Researchers at the Moore’s Cancer Center at UCSD Health examined and compared early and late breast and colorectal cancer diagnoses in patients in pre-pandemic 2019 and 2020, the first full year of the ongoing health crisis. The results were published in JAMA network open.

Although the total number of diagnoses was roughly the same in 2019 and 2020, there were significant differences in the percentage of stage 1 diagnoses of breast cancer compared to stage 4 diagnoses. The difficulty of treatment or cure increases with each higher stage number.

In 2019, 63.9 percent of the diagnosed patients had e.g. stage 1 of the disease compared to 51.3 percent in 2020. Conversely, 1.9 percent of patients were diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2019, compared to 6.2 percent in 2020.

“Concerns and consequences caused by the pandemic have caused at least some patients to postpone routine health care, such as screenings or doctor visits, that could have revealed early diagnoses.”

Dr. Jade Zifei Zhou

Similar trends were seen among colorectal cancer patients, though somewhat less than in breast cancer patients.

“For at least breast cancer, these data show a sustained trend,” said the study’s first author, Dr. Jade Zifei Zhou, a clinical fellow in hematology and oncology at the UCSD School of Medicine. “They suggest that concerns and consequences caused by the pandemic have caused at least some patients to postpone routine health care, such as screenings or doctor visits, that could have revealed early diagnoses.”

Researchers recognized several limitations of the study, including reflecting data from a single center and not assessing disease-related relationships. Second, the number of patients with colon cancer was relatively small. The study also included people seeking second opinion who may or may not have undergone previous treatment.

“Cancer screening is crucial for the early detection of cancer, especially in colon and breast cancer, where many cancers in the early stages can be treated and cured,” said senior author Dr. Kathryn Ann Gold, a medical oncologist at the Moore’s Cancer Center and a professor at the UCSD School of Medicine.

“There is growing concern that an effect of the pandemic is the increasing number of patients being diagnosed for the first time with late, incurable stages,” Gold said. “Patients who have delayed preventive treatment during the pandemic should be encouraged to discuss age-appropriate cancer screening with their primary care staff as soon as possible.” ◆


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