COVID-19 outbreaks led to dangerous delay in cancer diagnoses

The COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the U.S. health care system to a standstill this spring, which oncologists blame for a spike in advanced cancer cases and a likely substantial number of cases that remain undiagnosed.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the U.S. health care system to a standstill this spring, which oncologists blame for a spike in advanced cancer cases and a likely substantial number of cases that remain undiagnosed. Routine cancer screenings were suspended amid the public health crisis and, even where they were available, many patients chose to skip in-person medical visits despite nagging, unexplained symptoms. Data from insurance claims, lab orders, Medicare billings, and records from oncology practices appear to back up the trend, which has provided time for some cancers to progress quickly. Newly diagnosed patients increasingly are already in the advanced stages, with fewer treatment options and an elevated likelihood of unfavorable outcomes. "There's really almost no way that doesn't turn into increased mortality," said Norman E. "Ned" Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute. The agency predicted earlier this year that missed screenings and other pandemic-related impacts on care could trigger about 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colon cancer alone over the next decade—an estimate he now believes is conservative.