Will COVID make cancer worse? Doctors advise to keep up with healthcare even during pandemic


COVID and cancer. The concern for the virus may lead to an uptick in cancer diagnoses and deaths. As people avoid the hospital and preventative screenings, cancer is growing undetected and unencumbered.

Doctors say following the pandemic start and quarantine, there were fewer cancer cases. But now they are seeing patients and their cancers are at a more advanced stage.

William Small Jr. is the chairman and radiation oncology director of the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center at Loyola University.

“I am extremely distressed by that,” he said. “Finding cancers earlier are associated with a much higher rate of control and survival.:

less than half the women who normally get a mammogram got their screening from march to july. Doctors know from typical years there were breast tumors growing in that time.

“I don’t think there’s less cancers. We are just not seeing them.” Small Jr. said.

Visits to the gynecologist for routine pap smears which also look for cervical cancer were down dramatically.
Fewer people got their colonoscopy and men did not go for their PSA tests to detect prostate cancer.

“For people under the age of 80 in this country, cancer is the leading cause of death. And we don’t want to take one problem and switch it for another,” he said. “I hate to think of it – but long-term, what do you think the implications are? We are going to have a spike in cancer related mortality down the road.”

The secondary health crisis is one impacting many fields of medicine.

“It is not only the screenings we are worried about, it is people who are so scared to go in when they have a symptom that they’re not going to see their doctor,” Small Jr. said. “I have seen a couple of patients who ignored symptoms. They probably ignored more than they would have ignored. I know some patients who delayed their surgeries because they are scared.”

In what doctors fear will be a secondary health crisis, heart attacks are projected to rise, diabetes complications expected to get out of control and cancer prognoses likely to worsen.

“I worry that when we don’t diagnose cancers early, we certainly know it’s a little bit harder to cure patients as the disease progresses farther,” Small Jr. said.

The advice is to be cautious, not fearful. 

“I would very much encourage people to continue their general medical care, whether it’s cancer screening, whether they have a symptom, whether it is blood pressure, diabetes,” Small Jr. said. “I’m not only worried that we are going to have a spike in cancer mortality, I’m worried we are going to have more deaths related to chronic diseases because people are not getting taken care of properly. … My main message is, don’t ignore your healthcare because you are worried about the pandemic.”

More than 1600 people die every day from cancer in this country. Heart disease and cancer are the top killers in the United States. And doctors say that threat continues today and will exist long after COVID-19 is under control.

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