Stats show colonoscopy and mammogram screenings down 90% during COVID-19 pandemic

Doctors are concerned COVID-19 is leading to unprecedented disruption in cancer care as people avoid colonoscopy and mammogram screenings at hospitals and doctor's offices.

Statistics from the American Association of Cancer Research show mammograms fell 57% in March, 96% in April, and 95% in May compared to 2019.

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Colonoscopy screenings have decreased by 90% compared to last year.

Doctor Ronald Tang, a Hematologist Oncologist Medical Director at Leavey Cancer Center at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, said people are avoiding hospital and doctor office visits because they're afraid of contracting COVID-19.

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"We may see an uptick in cancer deaths just from this three month period by the end of the year. That's how shocking the statistics are. It's an alarming statistic for me because, yes, COVID-19 is one public health crisis, but it seems that with this decrease in screening, we could be leading to another public health crisis down the line," said Dr. Tang.

Dr. Tang said patients are going to hospitals with advanced cancers that are incurable because they postponed their screenings.

"From my personal practice, I've seen at least 20 to 25 cases where the cancer is so advanced now that they're not curable, where if they had seen me two to three months ago, we could have done some type of therapy," said Tang.

Dr. Tang said patients have been avoiding appointments for months now.  

"We actually saw in March when this pandemic started, obviously the CDC and the government told the public to avoid hospitals and doctors offices unless they had severe symptoms of COVID, but as this went on, patients have just been avoiding the hospital and doctors offices for normal things like mammograms, colonoscopies, physical exams, and follow-ups in general," said Tang.

Tang noted how early detection is very important with cancer cases when it comes to curing and surviving the illness.

"Cancer is one of those diseases that if you diagnose it early, you're gonna have a very good outcome, and unfortunately as time goes on, if you don't diagnose it early, you can have severe ramifications such as the cancer spreading to other organs where at that point, the cancer is incurable where we could have cured it," said Tang.

Tang said hospitals are safer now than before the pandemic.

"We've taken precautions where our staff has had testing. We require some patients to have testing. We do screening protocols, temperature checks so it's very safe now to come to the doctor or to go to get your mammograms or colonoscopies," said Tang.

Tang is urging people to "listen to their bodies" despite the pandemic.

"If your body is having a symptom or something that's lingering on that's not going away for two to three weeks, you should call your doctor. You should get a mammogram. You should get your colonoscopy.

These red flag symptoms like pain in breasts, blood in stool, unintentional weight loss that's ongoing for two to three weeks, you should contact your primary care provider," said Tang.

Tang said there has been a steady decline in breast cancer deaths from 1988 to 2018, but with the decrease in screenings, there could be an increase in breast cancer deaths.

"Cancer does not wait for a pandemic to be over. It does not wait for anyone or anything. Cancer doesn't recognize that, it will continue to grow because that's what cancer does.

It's something that we need to address now rather than six months down the line and I think if we address it now, we may be able to curve this alarming trend that we're seeing now.

If we wait six months down the line, we'll have more patients with more advanced cancers and that will cause an actual increase in hospitalizations. It'll cause an increase in health costs and this could affect us maybe three to four years down the line when we can stop it right now," said Tang.