A model created by the National Cancer Institute predicts that tens of thousands of excess cancer deaths will occur over the next decade as a result of missed screenings, delays in diagnosis, and reductions in oncology care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As director of NCI, I am deeply concerned about the potential impacts of delayed diagnoses and deferred or modified treatment plans on cancer incidence and mortality,” said Norman “Ned” Sharpless, MD.
“In the past 3 decades, we have seen steady and strong progress against death and suffering from cancer, thanks to improvements in prevention, screening, diagnosis, and treatment. I worry that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put those decades of steady progress at risk and may precipitate reversals of these trends.”
In an editorial published June 19 in Science, Dr. Sharpless highlighted modeling performed by the NCI that predicts an excess of 10,000 deaths from breast and colorectal cancer over the next 10 years.
The number of excess deaths per year would peak in the next year or 2, likely sooner for colorectal than for breast cancer, but “for both cancer types, we believe the pandemic will influence cancer deaths for at least a decade.”
In an interview, Dr. Sharpless pointed out that this analysis is conservative because the researchers only evaluated two types of cancer. They chose breast and colorectal cancer because these are common cancers (accounting for about one-sixth of all cancers) with relatively high screening rates.
“We didn’t model other cancer types, but we have no reason to think that we’re not going to see the same thing with other types of malignancies,” he said. “That is a significant amount of excess mortality.”
Delayed diagnosis, modified therapy
One of the effects of the pandemic has been to cause delays in cancer diagnosis. “Routine screening has plummeted and is running at less than 90% in some systems,” Dr. Sharpless said.
“Most cancers are diagnosed when people experience symptoms and go see their doctors, and those symptomatic screening events are also not happening,” he continued. “Fear of contracting the coronavirus in health care settings has dissuaded people from visits.”
In some cases, a delay in diagnosis will allow the cancer to progress to a more advanced stage. “The earlier the diagnosis, the better, and if the stages are more advanced, patients will not do as well for virtually every kind of cancer,” he said.
In addition to delays in diagnosis, treatments are being postponed or modified for patients recently diagnosed with cancer. Because of delays and reductions in curative therapies, patients may be receiving less than optimal care.
“We are seeing a lot of nonstandard care,” said Dr. Sharpless. “All of these things add up to increased cancer morbidity and mortality.”
He also pointed out that the term “elective” is confusing and problematic. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not needed, just that it’s not an emergency and doesn’t need to be done today,” said Dr. Sharpless. “But if we’re talking about chemotherapy and surgery, we don’t think they can be delayed for too long – maybe a week, but not for several months.”
Dr. Sharpless feels that overall it is time for cancer care to resume as much as possible, because “ignoring cancer for too long is an untenable choice and may turn one public health crisis into another.”
“If we act now, we can make up for lost time,” he wrote in the editorial. “Clearly, postponing procedures and deferring care due to the pandemic was prudent at one time, but now that we have made it through the initial shock of the pandemic, I believe it is time to resume robust cancer care.”
Through their network of cancer centers, researchers with the NCI can develop innovative solutions that allow screening and treatment to move forward while maintaining safety. “We need to make patients feel safe, and we have to answer important questions quickly,” he said.