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Cancer Doesn’t Pause in a Pandemic


Read Time: 3 minutes

APRN examining male patient

The statistics prove it: cancer screening saves lives. From 1991 to 2017, cancer mortality in the United States went down by 29%, and that decline can be attributed in large part to improvements in cancer screening, early detection, and prevention.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, people have postponed or canceled routine screening appointments—and that has led to a reduction in new cancer diagnoses in the United States. In February 2021, University of Utah Health reported a 4% drop in breast cancer screenings and a 2% drop in colorectal cancer screenings compared to rates before the pandemic.

phoebe freer, md
Phoebe Freer, MD

Phoebe Freer, MD, Huntsman Cancer Institute radiologist and chief of breast imaging in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at University of Utah Health

"We know there was a drop in breast cancers diagnosed in the early stages of the pandemic. This is not due to an actual drop in breast cancer incidence, but it is because of the decline in diagnosis due to fewer patients coming in for mammograms to detect their cancer," says Phoebe Freer, MD, a radiologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute and associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the University of Utah (U of U). "Those cancers, if they sit for another year, will eventually present at a more aggressive stage than they would have with earlier detection."

Delays in cancer screening and diagnosis can have a devastating impact on cancer mortality because it is much more challenging to treat cancers detected at late stages. The National Cancer Institute released predictive models for breast and colorectal cancer incidence suggesting the United States will experience 10,000 more deaths in the next decade from just these two types of cancer. These deaths are predicted to occur as a direct consequence of the reduction in screening and treatment anticipated to result from just a six-month COVID-19-related disruption.

"Catching cancer early can save lives and reduce side effects of treatment as well as the amount of treatment required," says Sachin Apte, MD, MS, MBA, Huntsman Cancer Institute chief clinical officer and cancer hospital physician-in-chief. "I strongly recommend that patients see their doctors and resume the screening they may have put off or rescheduled. We really want to catch these problems before they become much bigger."

Catching cancer early can save lives and reduce side effects of treatment as well as the amount of treatment required.

Sachin Apte, MD, MS, MBA

In January 2021, Huntsman Cancer Institute collaborated with the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, the American Cancer Society, and other leading organizations across the country to endorse resuming cancer screening and treatment during the pandemic. The coalition of 76 organizations released an open letter reminding the public that cancer still poses a major threat to people’s health.

Huntsman Cancer Institute is leading efforts, in collaboration with other health systems, to help make it easier for patients to access lifesaving mammography screenings, including extended scheduling hours and Saturday appointments at multiple locations. Most mammogram results are available within 24 hours.

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Cancer Education and Screening Bus, which was temporarily redeployed in 2020 to support community COVID-19 testing, has resumed mobile mammography screening across the Wasatch Front. Huntsman Cancer Institute community health educators have adapted to provide at-home colorectal cancer screening tests (FOBT kits) and virtual education to rural and Pacific Islander communities throughout the state, ensuring that cancer screening is more convenient than ever.

In addition, Huntsman Cancer Institute has many added safety protocols in place to keep patients safe during the pandemic. These include required facial coverings for all who enter Huntsman Cancer Institute, physical distancing in all areas, and rooms and equipment disinfected between every patient. Many providers, hospital staff, and other frontline workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to not only protect themselves, but also patients.

Jessica Rivera

Jessica Rivera, a breast cancer patient at Huntsman Cancer Institute, wants other women to know how important her cancer screening was. Rivera scheduled her first mammogram when she turned 40, following screening guidelines. The mammogram turned out to be crucial—doctors diagnosed early-stage breast cancer. Had she delayed this screening, her treatment path could have been much more challenging.

"I believe with all my heart that my mammogram saved my life," says Rivera. "Cancer is still happening. It doesn’t care that we have a pandemic. I just can’t speak to it enough about how critical cancer screening is regardless of the current circumstances."

Cancer touches all of us.