In a series of studies recently presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium that examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women with breast cancer, researchers report that ethnicity played a role in later diagnoses, Hispanics presented with more advanced and aggressive disease, and a focus on a single hospital in San Antonio finds a statistical difference between stage at diagnosis prior to the pandemic, compared with the postvaccine era.
Patients treated at the Mays Cancer Center, a cancer hospital of University of Texas Health and MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, during the pandemic were found to more likely present with advanced disease between March and December 2020, according to Marcela Mazo, MD, an oncologist with UT Health, San Antonio, and an author of each of three studies.
“We learned that Hispanic patients were presenting with more aggressive histologies such as HER2-positive and triple-negative disease. We also confirmed what we were suspecting, which is that Latina women had less access to medical coverage. We had a higher proportion of Hispanic patients presenting to us without medical coverage, which of course made the treatment extremely challenging,” said Dr. Mazo.
Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the United States, and understanding the factors that affect their healthcare is critical to formulating health policies.
And I’m sad to say that, even after everything opened up and people could get vaccinated, I still saw some patients who, for whatever reason, did not get a mammogram – which led to [more] clinical presentations of advanced cancer by the time they were seen by us,” she said.
Dr. Mazo said that underscreened women could also be considered victims of the pandemic. “I tell my patients to get their vaccines so they’re protected and they can feel more comfortable going to the doctor where there is a higher proportion of people who could potentially have COVID.”
Other studies have shown that patients in general, regardless of race or ethnicity, have been diagnosed with later-stage breast cancer diagnoses during the pandemic.
The three studies are based on an analysis of 696 patients treated at Mays Cancer Center. Of these, 264 were diagnosed before the pandemic (cohort A), 171 during the lockdown (Apr. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, cohort B) and 261 after vaccines were introduced (Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021, cohort C). Overall, there was a slight trend toward a higher incidence of HER2-positive disease during the lockdown period (odds ratio, 1.45) and in the postvaccine period (OR, 1.40), though neither relationship was statistically significant (P = .2). No relationships were seen between time period and incidence of triple-negative breast cancer.
The researchers found that Hispanic patients were more likely to be diagnosed with advanced disease in the pandemic years, compared with pre-COVID times. For example, the likelihood of being diagnosed with carcinoma in situ (Tis) versus T1 disease was lower in the postvaccine era than the pre-COVID era (OR, 0.38; P < .001), although there was no significant difference in Tis versus T1 during the lockdown period, compared with the pre-COVID era. The researchers concluded the difference was likely caused by the latency period of breast cancer.
The postvaccine era saw a 15% increase in patients diagnosed with HER2-positive disease, compared with the pre-COVID era. Patients diagnosed in the COVID era (cohorts B and C) were more likely to require neoadjuvant therapy than patients diagnosed in the pre-COVID era (OR, 1.78; P = .009).
They also found significant disparities in health insurance coverage. 91% of non-Hispanic patients were covered by insurance, compared with 70% of Hispanic patients.
Overall, the findings hint at the depth of health care inequities faced by Hispanic women in the region, and should be a call for action, Dr. Mazo said. “I wish that we as physicians would take the lead to do the best we can to support legislative changes that could help all of our patients get treated – independent of where they come from.”
Dr. Mazo has no relevant financial disclosures.