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Tailored messaging needed to get cancer screening back on track


In late June, Lisa Richardson, MD, emerged from Atlanta, Georgia’s initial COVID-19 lockdown, and “got back out there” for some overdue doctor’s appointments, including a mammogram.

The mammogram was a particular priority for her, since she is director of the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. But she knows that cancer screening is going to be a much tougher sell for the average person going forward in the pandemic era.

“It really is a challenge trying to get people to feel comfortable coming back in to be screened,” she said. Richardson was speaking recently at the AACR virtual meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer, a virtual symposium on cancer prevention and early detection in the COVID-19 pandemic organized by the American Association for Cancer Research.

While health service shutdowns and stay-at-home orders forced the country’s initial precipitous decline in cancer screening, fear of contracting COVID-19 is a big part of what is preventing patients from returning.

“We’ve known even pre-pandemic that people were hesitant to do cancer screening and in some ways this has really given them an out to say, ‘Well, I’m going to hold off on that colonoscopy,’ ” Amy Leader, MD, from Thomas Jefferson University’s Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said during the symposium.

Estimating the pandemic’s impact on cancer care

While the impact of the pandemic on cancer can only be estimated at the moment, the prospects are already daunting, said Richardson, speculating that the hard-won 26% drop in cancer mortality over the past two decades “may be put on hold or reversed” by COVID-19.

There could be as many as 10,000 excess deaths in the US from colorectal and breast cancer alone because of COVID-19 delays, predicted Norman E. Sharpless, director of the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

But even Sharpless acknowledges that his modeling gives a conservative estimate, “as it does not consider other cancer types, it does not account for the additional nonlethal morbidity from upstaging, and it assumes a moderate disruption in care that completely resolves after 6 months.”

With still no end to the pandemic in sight, the true scope of cancer screening and treatment disruptions will take a long time to assess, but several studies presented during the symposium revealed some early indications.

A national survey launched in mid-May, which involved 534 women either diagnosed with breast cancer or undergoing screening or diagnostic evaluation for it, found that delays in screening were reported by 31.7% of those with breast cancer, and 26.7% of those without. Additionally, 21% of those on active treatment for breast cancer reported treatment delays.

“It’s going to be really important to implement strategies to help patients return to care ... creating a culture and a feeling of safety among patients and communicating through the uncertainty that exists in the pandemic,” said study investigator Erica T. Warner, ScD MPH, from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Screening for prostate cancer (via prostate-specific antigen testing) also declined, though not as dramatically as that for breast cancer, noted Mara Epstein, ScD, from The Meyers Primary Care Institute, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester. Her study at a large healthcare provider group compared rates of both screening and diagnostic mammographies, and also PSA testing, as well as breast and prostate biopsies in the first five months of 2020 vs the same months in 2019.

While a decrease from 2019 to 2020 was seen in all procedures over the entire study period, the greatest decline was seen in April for screening mammography (down 98%), and tomosynthesis (down 96%), as well as PSA testing (down 83%), she said.

More recent figures are hard to come by, but a recent weekly survey from the Primary Care Collaborative shows 46% of practices are offering preventive and chronic care management visits, but patients are not scheduling them, and 44% report that in-person visit volume is between 30%-50% below normal over the last 4 weeks.


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