Doctors warn pandemic causing less cancer diagnosis, screenings

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) The coronavirus pandemic has caused many people to push things lower down on the list of priorities, including doctor’s appointments. Health experts are warning this could have a grim outcome, particularly on cancer deaths.

Less cancer is being diagnosed and less cancer screenings are happening amid the pandemic nationwide.

On paper, less cancer sounds like a good thing. But, it is actually a huge cause for concern as it does not reflect a true decrease in cancer, rather its going undiscovered.

“The longer someone delays screenings or preventative medicine the more likely they will present in the late stages of their cancer,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, Ballad Health Chief Physician.

Medical experts are calling new attention to early detection as cancer treatment is on the decline.

“The unfortunate thing is for all of us sitting here we do not know what the downstream effects of those are one to two years from now, what does that look like as far as late detection or late diagnosis of staging,” said Zilipah Cruz, director of oncology navigation at Ballad Health.

So, why is this?

At the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, Ballad reports cancer screenings had to be cancelled and rescheduled when the hospital was on lock down. But now, even as restrictions are lifted patients have been hesitant to reschedule those appointments, and the hospital is seeing a decline in people seeking preventative cancer care. They attribute this largely to fear of contracting the virus, among other reasons like financial strain.

“I think there is probably a group of people that may have lost health coverage during the economic impact and maybe they are afraid to seek care because of the cost of the care,” said Dr. Runnels.

The National Cancer Institute predicts thousands of people could die over the next several years from cancer if this trend continues.

“I think it is a big concern that we could see people dying of cancer as well as cardiovascular disease and other disease as well that perhaps people didn’t seek the care they needed early,” said Dr. Runnels.

Ballad is urging people not to fall victim to this pandemic by falling behind on cancer screening and treatment. They are emphasizing the safety of the facilities for those who might be concerned with contracting the virus and delaying appointments.

“We try to stress continually the importance of getting those cancer screenings and maintaining those appointments or rescheduling those appointments if they have been canceled,” said Cruz.

Doctors are especially concerned for how the pandemic will impact lung cancer. Diagnosis for the disease, the number one cause of cancer deaths nationwide, is significantly down.

“It’s alarming because we know for any cancer the sooner we find it the better we can treat it. It’s much easier to treat any cancer including lung cancer at an early stage where you can potentially be eligible for surgery versus when lung cancer is already spread outside the lungs, making it less likely,” said Dr. Christine Lovely, who works in cancer research for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Ballad Health is reporting a decline in lung cancer diagnosis locally, numbers that are lower than the current state and national average.

“From our data we are about 11% below last year’s numbers, which is concerning,” said Dr. Runnels.

The threat here is the same with all cancer: later detection often yields a worse outcome.

“This is a major problem because we want to act on lung cancer as quickly and early as possible,” said Dr. Lovely.

Doctors are stressing the importance of staying on top of screenings, especially for lung cancer, as it is so deadly.

“We don’t want to lose headway on those advances. We want to be able to diagnose and treat lung cancer, this is the number one cause of cancer related deaths in the United States and worldwide and we cannot lose momentum on this cancer during this pandemic,” said Dr. Lovely.

It is a problem specifically dangerous for Tennesseans.

“When you look at the state of Tennessee we are higher for lung cancer than other states within our nation because of the tobacco use at an early age and just the demographic so I want to really harp on the awareness of that,” said Zilipah.

Additional resources can be found through the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and Ballad Health.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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