Believe it or not, it’s been a while since I wrote about the coronavirus and its impact on patients with cancer. In recent weeks, we’ve had important new data come in, which I wanted to discuss. It’s not ideal.

Earlier this month, ASCO published results of its sweeping annual National Cancer Opinion Survey, an online questionnaire answered by 4,012 American adults – including 1,142 who are undergoing cancer treatment or who are cancer survivors.

Findings show:


- 64 percent of people scheduled for a cancer screening test such as a mammogram, colonoscopy, skin check, and PAP/HPV test during the pandemic report that it was delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19

- 63 percent reported being concerned about being behind on their cancer screening

- 58 percent of people with active cancer made significant sacrifices in their daily lives because of an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus, with black patients (61 percent) more likely than white patients (47 percent) to report major disruptions

- 45 percent of patients with active cancer say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health

- 42 percent of patients with active cancer wish they had more emotional support during the pandemic

In a press release, ASCO Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Schilsky expressed concern about the findings: " While delaying recommended screenings for a few months is not necessarily dangerous, our biggest concern is that a significant number of Americans might stop getting preventive care for long periods of time or altogether. Cancer screenings are critical for detecting cancer early, and early detection is key to successfully treating many cancers. We need to make sure people continue to get their routine, evidence-based cancer screenings within a reasonable time period.”

ASCO President Dr. Lori Pierce also was dismayed. “For people living with the challenges of cancer, the pandemic is adding a layer of hardship above and beyond what they would normally experience—from feelings of isolation to stress and anxiety,” Dr. Pierce said. “We urge every American with cancer and their family members to seek out the support they need to the greatest and safest extent possible.”

Dr. Ned Sharpless, the NCI director, told the Wall Street Journal this week that missed screenings and delayed diagnoses due to the pandemic will certainly lead to more cancer deaths over the next 10 years. Back in June, in aneditorial in the journal Science , he unveiled NCI data that estimated almost 10,000 additional U.S. deaths from breast and colorectal cancers due to the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2030, and said these data are likely a conservative estimate. The following month, in July 2020, a study published in The Lancet Oncology estimated that the delay in cancer diagnoses would cause as many as 3,621 additional deaths within five years in the United Kingdom, based on a review of patients with just four tumor types. This week, in the British Medical Journal, doctors called on the National Health Service to rapidly increase the medical workforce, and work to retain the current crop of physicians, to make up for the COVID-19 backlog.

The pandemic’s toll on the cancer care system, and the patients it serves, has been significant. And, for the foreseeable future, patients will continue to suffer. Please continue your heroic efforts to get people the best cancer care possible – including attention to prevention and mental health. You’re surely improving and even saving lives.

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