A new report from a cancer research organization warns that Europe now faces a “cancer epidemic” due to missed screenings during COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
Researchers say that cancer was already a leading cause of premature deaths prior to the pandemic, but that “the disastrous effects of the pandemic on early diagnosis and treatment will probably set back cancer outcomes in Europe by almost a decade.”
The report data found that doctors saw 1.5 million fewer patients with cancer during the first year of the pandemic; that 100 million cancer screenings were missed; and estimates that as many as one million Europeans may now have an undiagnosed cancer because of the backlog, according to The Guardian.
“To emphasize the scale of this problem, we estimate that about [one million] cancer diagnoses might have been missed across Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic,” researchers wrote in The Lancet Oncology. “There is emerging evidence that a higher proportion of patients are diagnosed with later cancer stages compared with pre-pandemic rates as a result of substantial delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment. This cancer stage shift will continue to stress European cancer systems for years to come.”
Professor Mark Lawler of Queen’s University Belfast, the lead author of the commission, says lockdowns had a “chilling effect on cancer research, with laboratories shut down and clinical trials delayed or cancelled in the first pandemic wave.”
He cautions that Europe is heading for a cancer epidemic if cancer health systems and research are not “urgently prioritized.”
The Lancet report aligns with similar data analysis that found pandemic policies led to steep declines in cancer screenings in the U.S., potentially leading to thousands of preventable deaths.
U.S. screenings dropped by 9.4 million, according to the National Cancer Institute, which experts worry could lead to cancers being diagnosed at a more advanced stage.
The NCI projected there could be an additional 10,000 cancer deaths because of missed screenings.
Separately, a U.S. Cancer Society study published in 2022 concluded that cancer-related deaths are expected to increase, due to missed screenings associated with the pandemic.
“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic abruptly and markedly disrupted health care and caused a swift diversion of resources and delays of nonessential services, including cancer screening,” researchers said in the report.
According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during April 2020 the screening rates for breast cancer declined by 87 percent, while the screening rates for cervical cancer plummeted 84 percent.
“This study highlights a decline in cancer screening among women of racial and ethnic minority groups with low incomes when their access to medical services decreased at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Amy DeGroff, PhD, MPH, CDC health scientist and lead author. “They reinforce the need to safely maintain routine health care services during the pandemic, especially when the health care environment meets COVID-19 safety guidelines.”
The CDC says the drop in people getting cancer screenings was impacted by screening site closures and the suspension of breast and cervical cancer screening services amid pandemic restrictions.