Women’s cancer screenings fell by 80% or more during COVID

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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging women, especially those of low-income and minority backgrounds, to get screened for cancer as a new study has revealed that breast and cervical cancer screenings plunged by more than 80% among these underprivileged groups.

The results “reinforce the need to safely maintain routine health care services during the pandemic, especially when the health care environment meets COVID-19 safety guidelines,” said lead study author and CDC health scientist Amy DeGroff, in a statement.

According to the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, breast cancer screenings for underserved women decreased by 87%, and by 84% for cervical cancer, during April 2020 when compared to the previous five years of averages for the month of April.

Previous research supports these findings, such as a similar study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) last year which found that the weekly number of newly diagnosed cancer patients dropped by 46.4% on average between March 1 and April 18, 2020 for six types of cancer: breast, colorectal, lung, pancreatic, gastric and esophageal.

Health experts warn that the slump in screenings will lead to delays in cancer diagnoses — further widening the racial wellness gap.

Disparities between racial and ethnic minorities were also observed in the new study. The study highlights especially the decline in breast cancer screenings for Native American women, who skipped check-ups last year at a rate of 98% — the steepest drop of all the groups studied. Cervical cancer screenings of Asian Pacific Islander women also fell steeply, by 92%.

Location also mattered. Breast and cervical cancer screenings were 86% and 85% lower for metro areas; 88% and 77% lower in urban areas; and 89% and 82% lower in rural regions, respectively.

The new report, published in the journal Preventative Medicine on Wednesday, noted that screening averages had climbed by May and June among all women, but rates remained well below average — by 50% or more for breast cancer — for women who live in rural regions.

Black and Hispanic women already claim the highest rates of cervical cancer at 8.3 and 8.9 per 100,000 women, respectively, compared to white women with 7.3 per 100,000. And while breast cancer rates are similar between white and black women, the latter is more likely to die of the disease at a rate of 26.9 per 100,000, compared to white women at 19.4 per 100,000. Black and Hispanic women are also more likely to be diagnosed with the most aggressive form of breast cancer, the study notes.

Study authors say their work can help inform public health policymakers on the need to provide more preventative health services to underprivileged peoples, especially as conventional resources are no longer available — such was the case at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

DeGroff concluded in her statement, “CDC encourages health care professionals to help minimize delays in testing by continuing routine cancer screening for women having symptoms or at high risk for breast or cervical cancer.”

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