In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, when people avoided doctor’s offices and hospitals canceled non-essential appointments, routine cancer screenings plummeted. Now we are starting to see the consequences.
ProPublica tells the story from Teresa Ruvalcaba, a Chicago factory worker who ignored the burning pain in her chest for six months. She was busy at work and was afraid of contracting COVID-19 from the doctor, and when she finally went to the emergency room she was diagnosed with advanced inflammatory breast cancer. It was one of the worst cases oncologist Pam Khosla had seen in ten years.
Cancer death rates have fallen by more than 30 percent since the early 1990s, a drop fueled by early detection and new treatments. But the past year has caused an extraordinary, unprecedented disruption to cancer care. People didn’t come to the hospital until their health had deteriorated so badly that they had trouble breathing, Khosla described. ProPublica:
She recently counted at least 10 cases of advanced cancer over a four-week period. She saw a patient with a grapefruit-sized mass on his neck. Another, whose tumor had pushed his brain dangerously close to the skull, was transferred to hospice. “He’s never seen the light of treatment,” Khosla said. All of these patients had feared seeking hospital treatment during the pandemic.
It will be years before we see the full extent of the damage caused by pandemic delays in cancer treatment. That predicts the National Cancer Institute procrastination diagnosing breast and colon cancer will lead to about 10,000 additional deaths over the next decade.
Ruvalcaba’s story adds a face to the anonymous statistics on delays in diagnosis, showing in vivid detail how the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will quietly affect families across the country for years to come.
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