The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a significant drop in new diagnoses of six major types of cancer in the United States during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This decrease coincided with a sharp decline in the volume of pathology reports, indicating fewer cancer screenings and procedures were performed during this period.
The findings are part of the latest Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, a collaboration between several major health organizations, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Cancer Society, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries.
The report’s authors suggest that disruptions in medical care due to the pandemic led to a decline in cancer screenings and delayed diagnoses. The data analyzed came from select population-based cancer registries participating in CDC’s National Program of Cancer Registries or the NIH’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program.
The report focused on six types of cancer: female breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, which are often diagnosed through screening tests; thyroid and prostate cancers, which are often diagnosed incidentally; and pancreatic cancer, usually diagnosed when the patient presents with symptoms.
Between March and May 2020, new cases of all six types of cancer fell sharply. However, by July 2020, diagnoses had returned to pre-pandemic levels, except for prostate cancer. The volume of electronic pathology reports also declined steeply before returning to normal levels.
New cases of early-stage cancers fell more sharply than those of advanced cancers. For example, there were over 16% fewer cases of early-stage colorectal cancer diagnosed in 2020 than expected.
Karen E. Knudsen, M.B.A., Ph.D., chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, expressed concern over the implications of delayed diagnosis, which is generally associated with more aggressive disease and worse outcomes. She emphasized the importance of regaining lost ground in early cancer detection.
The report also revealed disparities among different population groups. Asian or Pacific Islander populations experienced greater declines in new cancer cases, except for pancreatic cancer, compared to White, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native populations.
While the findings suggest missed opportunities for early cancer detection during the pandemic, the authors note that efforts should focus on removing barriers to preventive care visits and reducing disparities in early detection. Ongoing research aims to further understand the impacts of the pandemic on cancer trends.
For more about the report, see https://seer.cancer.gov/report_to_nation/.