The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will likely cause at least 10,000 additional deaths from breast cancer and colorectal cancer over the next decade in the United States, according to one of the country’s leading voices on cancer.
“There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing delayed diagnosis and suboptimal care for people with cancer,” wrote Norman “Ned” Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in an editorial published in the journal Science.
The NCI and other modeling groups are predicting that postponements in screening for and diagnosis of both breast and colorectal cancers will likely lead to a 1% rise in deaths through 2030.
“For both these cancer types, we believe the pandemic will influence cancer deaths for at least a decade,” Sharpless said in a recent virtual joint meeting of the Board of Scientific Advisors and the National Cancer Advisory Board.
“I find this worrisome as cancer mortality is common. Even a 1% increase every decade is a lot of cancer suffering. And this analysis, frankly, is pretty conservative. We do not consider cancers other than those of breast and colon, but there is every reason to believe the pandemic will affect other types of cancer, too. We did not account for the additional non-lethal morbidity from upstaging, but this could also be significant and burdensome.”
Sharpless also noted the increased fear of becoming infected with COVID-19 in health care settings has significantly reduced the number of mammographies and colonoscopies that can pinpoint tumors at earlier and more treatable stages.
Many medical facilities have responded by instituting strict precautionary measures that could reduce the potential for infection. Patients are often screened when they arrive for appointments and given face masks. The number of patients in waiting rooms is often capped as well.
In the U.S., more than 41,000 people die of breast cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That annual figure jumps to 52,000 for colorectal cancer.
“Ignoring life-threatening non–COVID-19 conditions such as cancer for too long may turn one public health crisis into many others,” Sharpless wrote. “Let’s avoid that outcome.”
In addition, the pandemic has ground to a halt important cancer research, including trials examining new treatments.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.