Delaying cancer care can cost your life

If the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic caused you to postpone or skip a routine screening for cancer, it’s time to reschedule.

If you are experiencing non-COVID symptoms of health issues but are reluctant to see your primary care provider due to concerns about the pandemic, stop waiting.

Don’t risk a bad outcome. Make the appointment.

The National Cancer Institute predicts that missed screenings because of the pandemic will result in an excess of at least 10,000 United States deaths due to breast or colorectal cancer, and thousands of more deaths by other cancers, over the next decade.

Early cancer diagnosis is key

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“If you have cancer, that’s more lethal to you than COVID-19,” said Manpreet Sandhu, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony’s Health Center in Alton, Illinois. “That’s what the statistics say. If you have lung cancer, your chance of dying in the next five years is 40-50%. Meanwhile, the average mortality rate for COVID-19 is expected to be in the 1-2% range.”

Early detection of cancer increases your chance of survival. That’s why mortality rates for cancers continue to decline as more and more people follow guidelines and get screened.

But when the pandemic hit the world hard in March, everything changed. Health care systems shut down most screenings to divert resources to battling the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Now, though, as screenings become available again, people are not taking the steps necessary to protect their long-term health.

The Epic Health Research Network this spring conducted a study of 2.7 million patients across 23 states and discovered that screenings for breast, colorectal and cervical cancer were down by 86-94% from the previous two years.

“Cancer diagnosis and treatment are important,” Dr. Sandhu said. “You can’t just stop.”

Creating a safe environment

Dr. Sandhu said she is currently treating a patient for lung cancer. The patient began experiencing symptoms in February, but put off testing and evaluation because they feared going to the hospital.

“Six months is just way too long to wait, especially for lung cancer. Once you reach Stage 4, I can treat you, but I cannot cure the disease,” Dr. Sandhu said. “Earlier diagnosis means that you have a better chance of cure.”

The medical community is concerned that fear of the novel coronavirus continues to keep people from getting screened or seeing their provider about possible cancer symptoms.

While understandable, the fear is unfounded, Dr. Sandhu said.

“At OSF Saint Anthony’s, we have had a very low total number of COVID positive cases, but our COVID patients go to a separate floor. They are isolated. We have mandatory policies, and we ensure those policies are followed,” she said.

Further measures are taken to protect non-COVID patients.

“Our cancer center is a closed unit,” Dr. Sandhu said. “Only patients can come in, and they are screened before they come in. Our biopsies and chemotherapy are in a completely closed unit. No visitors. Only the people who need to come in can come in. Everybody is screened at the door. Nobody comes in without a mask. And we are cleaning non-stop.

“Bottom line: It’s safe.”

Don’t delay cancer screening

The message is clear.

If you have a chronic condition, it’s important to continue to follow the health routine you and your physician established. If you notice lumps or changes to your body, see your provider. It’s also important to continue proactive measures to maintain or improve your health, so get screened.

Don’t risk a bad outcome.

“Do not stay away from your doctor or the hospital,” Dr. Sandhu said. “Please come in. Please.”

Last Updated: July 15, 2020

About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Cancer, COVID-19, Preventive Health