Cancer specialists are worried the drop in cancer diagnoses means cases are going undetected and untreated
In the months since a pandemic, much of normal life has stopped. But while so much has been on hold or locked down to keep people safe and the health-care system functioning, oncologists fear that pause has contributed to another potential crisis.
“What we’re worried about, of course, is that there may be a tsunami of cancer out there that’s going to suddenly show up,” said Dr. Keith Stewart, director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.
Cancer specialists are worried about the significant drop in the number of cancer screening, referrals and diagnoses in Canada since the pandemic began in March.
That doesn’t mean cancer rates are falling – experts say it means cases are being missed and people aren’t getting the treatment they need.
During the first pandemic – between March 15 and May 31 – screening for the three major cancers in Ontario dropped significantly from the same period in 2019, according to Ontario Health.
Alberta Health reported a 23% decrease in the number of Alberta people diagnosed with cancer between March and September 2020 from the same period in 2019.
In British Columbia, screening and diagnostics such as imaging and biopsy have decreased from March to June, according to the BC Cancer medical director.
Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi said cancer diagnosis rates have decreased by about 25%, including cancers that are often screened, and cancers that are not regularly screened.
This decrease means that there are people who have it but don’t know they have it. This affects the likelihood of a successful treatment.
According to a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal, a delay in diagnosis will lead to a tragic end.
Citing a British study, it said that for four common types of cancer — breast, bowel, lung and esophageal — delays in diagnosis due to the COVID-19 pandemic would result in approximately 3,500 avoidable cancer deaths in England.
Doctors worry similar effects could occur in Canada.
Patients in Canada who were deemed urgent — even during the lockdown — did, for the most part, receive immediate treatment. But the delays for others have all led to another issue: backlogs.
According to a study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, the number of cancer surgeries performed in Ontario in April this year was 38% less than in April 2019.
At Princess Margaret in Toronto, screening rates return to about 60%, to keep patient distances safe and patient appointments stretch.
In B.C., screening capacity has returned to around 85% – but Chi believes about 10% of cancers have yet to be diagnosed.
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