Doctors say postponing cancer treatment because of COVID could significantly impact prognosis

Medical Watch

When the numbers of COVID-19 cases go down, doctors fear other critical figures will skyrocket at the cost of more lives. According to doctors, the “COVID Curve” is altering the “Cancer Curve.”

After doctors found a small nodule in Harla Hutchinson’s lung, the never-smoker decided to move forward with surgery, even during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Of course I was a little concerned about that and I did ask about that,” she said.

She even got a second opinion. The consensus to go forward with it.

“It’s better to go ahead now because it could be six months or more,” she said. “If you’re trying to wait this out, and you have no idea right now. It was a tiny little nodule in an easily accessible location and who knew what would happen if we just let it sit there.”

On April 22, Hutchinson underwent a robotic procedure to remove the lesion, which turned out to be cancerous.

“I felt really lucky that they had caught it early,” she said. “I don’t know how fast it would have grown if we’d left it. And I don’t think I would have wanted to be waiting around for six months feeling like I had a time bomb in me.”

Northwestern Medicine thoracic surgeon Dr. Samuel Kim knows the numbers. And when it comes to lung cancer versus COVID, waiting it out may have changed Hutchinson’s prognosis.

“We really don’t know at this time what true societal impact of COVID-19 is going to be,” Kim said. “The true mortality, as far as we know according to the CDC, is anywhere from 0.4 to 0.8 percent. From Stage 1 to Stage 2 cancer, if you let it get bigger, there is about 40 or 30% increase in mortality. So I think really, we have to get everything in perspective.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, Kim said his patient case load has gone down 50 to 60% with patients opting to forgo visits and screenings until COVID cools off.

“I just actually saw one other patient because of COVID,” he said. “This patient was very afraid to get an operation and we made a decision to repeat a CT scan. So I saw this patient back in March and repeat CT scan now. There was interim growth.”

“If the doctor was confident that this was the time to do it, then I should be confident that this was the time to do it,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson was tested for the virus before her surgery. She was negative. And there are precautions in place at the hospital, including thermal temperature checks for employees. They are measures Kim said have helped prevent infection transmission among his patients. 

“So I was very reassured of course. There was no way to know entirely that you weren’t being exposed. But I was very reassured by all the precautions they were taking and I was hardly in the hospital at all,” Hutchinson said.

“If we now postpone any of these operations longer, I’m afraid we’re going to convert early lung cancer into late cancer, which has a significant impact on the prognosis,” Kim said. “So what I’m afraid is if we don’t deal with these problems now, we’re going to have a second epidemic or pandemic problem non-COVID-related death that is going to haunt us the later part of the year.”

Kim said smokers and former smokers 55 and older should get a lung cancer screening with a CT scan.

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