Published Jul 8, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for hospitals to accommodate cancer screenings, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel: At the end of 2020, cancer screenings rebounded, and screenings are returning in a robust way.
In a study from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute published in Cancer Cell, research showed that cancer screenings rebounded in Q4 of 2020, after a substantial decline in the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and the impact was felt immediately. The findings published in Cancer Cell were based on data from Massachusetts General Brigham (MGB) System. They showed that between September 2020 to December 2020, cancer screening rates for breast, prostate, cervical, and lung cancer recovered, and actually exceeded numbers seen before the pandemic.
Research also showed that there was an increase in racial and socioeconomic disparities among the demographics of those who got screened for cancer during the pandemic. The study outlines that from June to December 2020, there was a significant decrease in the proportions of Black and Hispanic patients getting mammograms. The “concerning” findings speculate how the pandemic “may accentuate racial disparities related to cancer screening.”
“Early screening and diagnosis provide patients with the best chance for cancer cure—a widened racial gap in cancer screening due to COVID-19 will exacerbate existing racial disparities in cancer mortality,” says study co-author Dr. Quoc-Dien Trinh, the co-director of the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Prostate Cancer Center, and co-leader of the Mass General Brigham United Against Racism prostate cancer outreach clinic.
For people currently battling cancer or survivors of cancer, it’s a good idea to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to you. Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to the coronavirus.
The Mayo Clinic’s Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar says in an earlier interview that it’s important for cancer patients to get the vaccine and that it is safe to do so. He says, “As long as you are feeling well, just go ahead with the vaccine whenever it’s offered to you. Sometimes even on the same day if you are going to the clinic to get a small dose of chemotherapy and they’re giving the vaccine, just get it, there’s really no major problem,” Dr. Rajkumar says.
“The only people for whom we are saying to delay by a month or two are patients who have had a stem cell transplant because we have wiped out everything. And so you want to wait until some of the recovery happens so when you give the vaccine, they have an immune response.”
The study’s co-senior author, Dr. Toni K. Choueiri, director of the Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says that screenings for breast cancer showed particular racial disparities.
He says, “[there was a] substantial increase in screening procedures during the more recent periods with numbers exceeding those seen before the pandemic. However, racial disparities appear to differ between screening procedures, and are more marked in patients undergoing mammography.”
Women aged 45 to 54 with an average risk of breast cancer (meaning, there is no history of the disease in their family and they do not have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation), should screen annually for breast cancer, per the current recommendations. When you’re getting screened for breast cancer, ask about dense breasts, which can make it harder to detect cancer in the breast tissue. Additionally, women should regularly perform self-exams at home.
SurvivorNet is committed to helping close the racial gap that exists in cancer care. We believe that everyone should have equal access to screenings and treatment.
At SurvivorNet‘s June 2021 Close the Gap conference, Matthew Knowles spoke about this racial divide and urged change. He says, “This distrust [by people of color towards the medical community] goes back all the way to slavery, quite frankly.”
“If there is a new day,” says Knowles, “I think we have to understand that people of color are in high positions in the medical profession and working vigorously to make a change. We can’t change what happened years ago, but we can affect change of what happens today. It’s about early detection.”