America’s ticking cancer time bomb: 135,000 cases were missed during Covid as hospitals focused on virus

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Nearly 134,000 cancer cases were missed during the first year of the Covid pandemic, a study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky made the startling prediction after comparing the number of cancers expected to be detected from March to December 2020 to the number that were actually detected.

Detection rates dropped nearly 30 percent over this period, they said, with patients with prostate, female breast and lung cancer most likely to have their illness missed.

It happened as hospitals turned over whole wards to battling the virus and patients steered clear of ERs for fear of ‘being a burden’ or catching the virus.

Experts warned many of the patients whose diagnosis was missed would likely have their cancer diagnosed later when it was more advanced and harder to treat.

The above graph shows the number of cancers diagnosed (green line) against the number that were expected to be diagnosed

The study only looked at data for 2020, but there are signs that more cases were missed in 2021 and 2022 as hospitals continued to be overwhelmed with Covid patients.

Data suggests that as many as 10million cancer screenings — for conditions like breast and colon cancer — were missed in 2020 and 2021. Another study on screenings for breast and lung cancer found the number of appointments attended fell 25 percent over the same period.

Unlike other diseases — such as viruses — cancers occur at constant and predictable rates within the population every year.

This means that when the number of cases detected drops slightly, this suggests many cases are being missed — rather than the disease is disappearing.

The researchers, led by Dr Todd Burus — an oncologist who led the study — wrote in the study: ‘Unlike other population health outcomes studied, a decline in new cancer diagnoses in 2020 does not indicate that cancer occurrence in the US decreased, but rather that new cancers were undetected.

‘The longer cancer exists undetected, the greater the risk of tumor progression and the lower the chances of survival and other positive outcomes for patients.’

For their study, published in JAMA Oncology, researchers looked at data from more than 1.2million cancer cases recorded between January 2018 to December 2020.

They were stored in the US Cancer Statistics 2001 to 2020 database, a national repository recording all cancer diagnoses across the country.

Of the cases, 657,000 — or 50 percent of the total — were in males while 757,000 were recorded in those aged 65 years and older — 58 percent — and more than a million — or 82 percent — were in white individuals. 

Researchers initially carried out an analysis — adjusting for factors including time of year — to predict the number of cancers that were expected from March to December 2020.

They then compared this to the number of cancers diagnosed over that same period, revealing a drop of 28 percent — or nearly 134,000 cases.

Their data showed prostate cancer was the most commonly missed, with 22,950 fewer cases diagnosed than expected.

The second most commonly missed was female breast cancer, with 16,870 fewer cases detected, followed by lung cancers, with 16,333 fewer cases detected.

Doctors have said many patients did not come forward until their symptoms were more advanced, making their cancer harder to treat (stock image)

Doctors have said many patients did not come forward until their symptoms were more advanced, making their cancer harder to treat (stock image)

Overall, melanoma — or skin cancer — saw the sharpest drop in detections down by as much as 43 percent.

But researchers pointed out there were drops in diagnoses of all cancers — including more fatal types like pancreatic cancer, where detection rates dipped six percent.

Doctors revealed in the year after the virus first emerged that many patients had early warning signs of cancer — such as changes in bowel movements — but waited until these became more advanced before seeking help.

America’s cancer fatality rate dropped 33 percent from 1991 to 2020, data showed — amid advances in detection and treatments. However, it is feared that the Covid pandemic has reversed some of these gains.

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