COVID-19 pandemic led to fewer women discovering breast cancer in early stage, study says

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The COVID-19 pandemic delayed access to medical care, including routine exams and even cancer screenings, a new study finds. Concerningly, researchers from the University of California-San Diego found even worse news for women, who received fewer early-stage breast cancer diagnoses.

Moreover, the number of late-stage breast and colorectal cancer diagnoses increased, as many patients delayed care during the global health crisis.

“Cancer screening is crucial to the early detection of cancer, particularly in colorectal and breast cancers where many early stage cancers can be treated and cured,” says Kathryn Ann Gold, MD, a medical oncologist at Moores Cancer Center and professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a university release.

Early detection is key to survival

Early (or stage I) breast cancer is when the cancer is small and has not spread to other parts of the body. Stage IV, on the other hand, indicates the cancer has spread to other areas or organs and is much more difficult to treat.

While the total number of diagnoses stayed roughly the same, doctors at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health report that they were more likely to diagnose late-stage breast cancers instead of early-stage breast cancers in 2020, compared to 2019.

Specifically, in 2019, physicians diagnosed 63.9 percent of patients with stage I breast cancer and just 1.9 percent with stage IV breast cancer. In 2020, 51.3 percent had their cancer detected in stage I, while 6.2 percent received a diagnosis for stage IV breast cancer.

Study authors found similar trends among colorectal cancer diagnoses, but to a lesser extent compared to breast cancer diagnoses.

“For breast cancer, at least, these data demonstrate a continuing trend,” adds first author Jade Zifei Zhou, MD, PhD, a clinical fellow in hematology and oncology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “They suggest that concerns and consequences caused by the pandemic have prompted at least some patients to delay routine health care, such as screenings or doctor visits, that might have revealed early stage diagnoses.”

The findings appear in JAMA Network Open.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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