Study: Boston-area cancer screenings plummeted in first peak

Nearly 1,500 cancer cases in the Boston area went undiagnosed during the first surge of coronavirus

Study: Boston-area cancer screenings plummeted in first peak

BOSTON — A new study analyzing cancer screenings and diagnoses during the first COVID-19 surge shows a substantial drop in the number of precancer diagnoses at one of the region’s largest health care systems. Researchers at Dana Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center said the findings confirm concerns that government restrictions may have delayed detection and treatment of many cancers, according to a news release.

“It’s widely thought that fewer people were screened for cancer and precancerous lesions during the first surge of the pandemic, because of limitations on non-urgent medical procedures, restrictions on patient volume, and patients’ concerns about the spread of the virus and the need for social distancing,” says Ziad Bakouny, MD, MSc, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a co-first author of the study. “For this study, we wanted to document the extent of this decline, and its impact on cancer diagnoses, at a major U.S. health care system.”

The study was published today online by JAMA Oncology and also found that diagnoses at the healthcare system nearly rebounded to where they were before the pandemic began. Investigators tracked the number of people who took cancer screening tests such as mammograms, colonoscopies and Papanicolaou tests, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests as well as low-dose computer tomography (CT) and how many were ultimately diagnosed with cancer, according to Bakouny.

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Researchers examined data from March 2nd through June 2nd 2020, and compared it to the previous three months and following three moments as well as the same time frame in the previous year, 2019.

The study shows, 15,453 patients were screened for cancer in March-June compared to 64,269 in the three months prior, and 60,344 during the same three month period in 2019.

In the Boston area, approximately 1,438 additional cancers and precancerous growths would have been diagnosed had the same number of people been screened during the peak periods as they had been the previous three months, according to researchers.

“The patients who missed their cancer screening tests should talk to their providers,” Bakouny added.