Over the past week or so there has been a spate of news coverage about the downturn in cancer screenings during the pandemic. We get the concerns that led some to cancel, especially as cases surged late last year. But the reality is that early detection and treatment remain essential.
This shouldn’t be news to readers. Back in early September we talked to hospitals in the area and reported they had seen a significant decline in their numbers. The biggest hits came in March and April, when the first wave of the pandemic arrived in the U.S.
How bad was the drop? Mammograms fell nationally by about 87% between February and April. Pap smears were down 83%, while colonoscopies fell 90%. Unsurprisingly, the number of new cancer diagnoses also fell.
Part of that, of course, was due to the decision by hospitals to cancel elective procedures and other non-essential actions as COVID initially spread. By the summer, when the first wave receded, hospitals began opening back up for non-emergency care and numbers ticked back up a bit.
It’s hard to say how many of those missed appointments were made up. And it’s even harder to tell whether the pandemic will have a significant effect on cancer diagnoses and survival in the coming months. The unfortunate reality is that it’s impossible to believe there weren’t delays for at least a handful of patients that will cause significant problems. Cancer didn’t decide to give people a break until the pandemic ends.
The risk is that these cancers that could have been caught early will eventually show up at a more advanced stage. Again, it’s difficult to say just what that means for any individual patient. For someone with a cancer known for slow progression, a delay of a few months might not mean much. For those with more aggressive forms, it could be much more problematic.
We understand why people would still be nervous about going to a hospital or doctor’s office right now. Wisconsin still has high levels of COVID activity. Two of the three remaining counties that are in the critically high category are in the area. COVID remains a formidable challenge, even as vaccines begin rolling out and the state’s hospital occupancy rate starts to decline.
When it comes to cancer, though, early detection and treatment really is the name of the game. And that means screenings remain vitally important.
We can’t give individual advice, but your doctor can. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor. Get expert advice on how to approach screenings. That communication can literally be a lifesaver.
While most experts continue to believe the pandemic can be ended by late spring or early summer, it’s important to remember that it’s not the only health challenge people can face. Other threats, like cancer and heart disease, aren’t exactly on vacation. They can prove every bit as lethal as COVID.
Don’t let fear dissuade you from seeking the screenings that can save your life. A decision on whether to delay screenings is one you should be making only in concert with your doctor.
We know everyone is tired of thinking about COVID. Frankly, so are we. But until this pandemic ends it will remain the primary public health concern. It will remain a factor in virtually every decision people make about where to go, what to do, and who to be around.
It will end. Pandemics always do. We don’t know exactly when or how, but it will happen.
Let’s make sure you don’t needlessly face a new health crisis after this one is over.