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COVID-driven drop in cancer screenings didn't result in more new cases

Dr. Julie Brahmer (R) and Katie Thornton review PET scans of a patient being treated at the Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The dropoff in cancer screenings during the pandemic didn't result in significantly more breast, cervical and colon cancer cases, or how advanced those cases were, according to a review of nearly 375,000 diagnoses in electronic health records.

Why it matters: The findings from Epic Research could ease concerns about countless hidden cases and more advanced stages of disease stemming from millions of missed screenings during the height of the pandemic.

  • Previous research showed the decline in primary care visits and routine tests early in the pandemic resulted in 94% decreases in both breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings and an 86% decrease in colon cancer screenings before rebounding somewhat in 2021.

What they found: There was a clear drop in cancer cases early in the pandemic that accompanied the decrease in screening. However, as screening rates returned to normal, cancer detection rates did, too.

  • There wasn't a significant increase in the rate of cancer diagnoses in 2020-2022 compared to pre-pandemic, and new diagnoses of advanced cancers also didn’t rise.

Yes, but: It could take years to fully assess the impact of missed screenings, especially for cancers with longer intervals between screenings.

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  • Posted on February 21, 2023