Coronavirus Special Coverage

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Cancers going undiagnosed during COVID: a reminder to prioritize routine checks

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, fewer people have been diagnosed with cancer. Good news? Nope. The lack of cancer diagnoses just means that many cancers are going undiagnosed. Those cancers are still there. They just haven’t yet been discovered. Now, they’ll pop up at a more advanced stage. They’ll start to cause noticeable problems and people will get them diagnosed when their chance of survival is lower.

The bottom line: COVID-19 is not a reason to skip routine health checks, though many people have paused their health care during the pandemic. When it feels safe to do so, catch up with your doctor and make sure all is well. Doctor’s offices are actually one of the least-risky places to visit during the pandemic. When in doubt, use the event risk assessment planning tool to decide when the time is right to go.

What we know so far

New analyses from laboratory companies like Quest Diagnostics and health records firms like Epic have shown that the diagnosis of some common cancers, like breast, colorectal, lung, gastric, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers, has dropped by nearly 50% during the pandemic in the US. Screenings for these cancers have dropped by an even larger percentage.

When they are detected later, they will be more likely to have deadly consequences than if they had been detected earlier. For example, non-small cell lung cancer has a 5-year relative survival rate of 61% if discovered at the localized stage. But at later stages, when that non-small cell lung cancer spreads, the survival rate drops all the way down to 6%.

Similarly, 5-year breast cancer survival drops from 99% at the local stage to 27% at the distal stage. Colorectal cancer survival drops from 90% to 14%.

Not a small problem

The USA already has about 600,000 cancer deaths per year. So if we see more advanced cancers that should have been discovered this year rises, that could add up to lots of extra deaths over the future. We might not even know when we start to see these deaths, though, because they’ll be spread out over time. Instead, we might just see a general rise in fatalities.

It’s not just cancer, either. Other conditions are also going undiagnosed right now. We’ll likely see a rise in cardiovascular and metabolic disease, dementia, and restless leg syndrome.

This news is a reminder that taking care of your health is an important prep, and that the pandemic hasn’t suspended the need for ordinary health care. If it’s safe and appropriate for you in light of the COVID-19 situation in your area, continuing your routine health care, like regular physicals, cancer screenings, and checkups for new symptoms is an important preparedness measure. It’s easy to let these things slide, but like any other form of prep, they need to be kept current.


  • 1 Comment

    • Mack Morrison

      I agree 100%. I’ve had a colonoscopy this year and routine skin checks at the Dermatologists. It’s important to keep up with the preventive health checks.

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