cancer

Another Unexpected Pandemic Consequence: Undiagnosed Cancer

In these pages, your humble bloggeur (that would be me) has written about several unusual consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these were on the ironically funny side, such as farmed fish being too large for restaurant plates, rattlesnakes climbing in plane landing gears, and the ketchup packet shortage. But, not all of these odd aftermaths of the pandemic are humorous. The topic of this post is very unfunny.

Lungs

It seems that as healthcare providers were swamped with COVID cases, or were at reduced capacity because staff became ill, or because service slowed in order to prevent CoV-2 spread, many people have missed routine medical care for non-COVID problems. It is feared that this will create a crisis in coming years involving increased diagnosis of cancers that were caught later than usual. As we deal with the fourth wave of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant, we are learning that the pandemic dramatically disrupted routine health screenings for cancer and other chronic diseases. Some now predict that the next crisis that could overwhelm the US health system will be a surge in advanced chronic diseases like cancer that went undiagnosed and untreated for too long.

Screenings for several major cancers and new cancer diagnoses fell significantly during 2020, according to a study published in December 2021 in the journal Cancer. This was not because there was less cancer in the world. It was because fewer patients were seeing their doctors.

A co-author of the Cancer study, and who is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that we have never before seen screening rates drop so dramatically in such a short time.

In one case, a Hispanic man in his 40s first noticed rectal bleeding in early 2020 that his doctor said was probably due to hemorrhoids. The man was unable to get a timely colonoscopy to rule out cancer because the local hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and he also feared catching COVID if he went to a hospital swamped with COVID patients. Eighteen months later, he finally got a colonoscopy, which revealed advanced rectal cancer. Those 18 months likely were the difference between being cured by a simple polyp removal vs dealing with a cancer that had metastasized throughout his body.

At this point, nobody knows how many cases like this are out there. We will find out.  

This patient, as thousands of others like him, had the misfortune to notice symptoms that needed followup amid the biggest disruption of medical care in US history. In 2020, while hospitals curtailed services in order to prepare for the COVID surge, the number of colonoscopies plummeted 93 percent. By the end of the year, there had been 133,231 fewer colonoscopies performed compared to 2019. There also were 62,793 fewer chest CT scans, 49,334 fewer fecal blood tests, and prostate biopsies dropped 25%.

This drop in screenings has created a huge backlog that will take months to clear. A gastroenterologist at a small community hospital in the Middle-of-No-Where, Kansas was recruited by a larger hospital in Kansas City to do nothing but colonoscopies from 7 in the morning to “whenever at night.” They had a backlog of 1000 patients—a certain percentage of whom have cancer already growing in their colons while waiting to be told they had colon cancer. And that backlog begets a fresh one of new patients who also need to be scoped because they just noticed something like rectal bleeding, but will have to wait for those who have already been waiting.

This backlog creates a subtle form of medical rationing. It forces doctors to make hard choices about which patients to prioritize. "Lucky" are the serious patients who are moved to the head of the line. Not so lucky are those whose colonoscopies or mammograms or biopsies are then further delayed.

I would rather deal with rattlesnakes in my plane's landing gear or forgo mustard on my brat (which would be pushing the limit) than delay a needed medical test or procedure. It seems that your humble bloggeur (me again) has been caught in the backlog. I am scheduled to have an enlarged parathyroid gland removed next week, but COVID can still derail that. I won’t be certain that the surgery will happen until the day before I am to be operated on and that depends, in part, on everyone, including me, being COVID-free, and the OR not being diverted for use as a COVID ICU. If it proceeds as scheduled, I will have waited several months since the initial diagnosis for the surgery. An additional routine diagnostic test I need in order to determine how the fractious organ might have affected my bone health was scheduled six months out. Six months for a routine scan?