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Thousands of Victorians may have missed out on early cancer diagnoses during the pandemic, potentially allowing the disease to progress past the chance of recovery and causing a “cancer spike” later on, the Cancer Council says.
The council’s Victorian branch published figures in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday showing 10% fewer cancer screening pathology tests were ordered between April and October last year.
The modelling suggests this could represent up to 2,530 missed cancer diagnoses.
The Cancer Council Victoria chief executive, Todd Harper, said Covid-19 had has a serious impact on proactive health screenings.
“We know that in Australia during 2020 as Covid emerged people were reluctant to engage with healthcare providers, and this I think is one of the manifestations of that reluctance,” he said.
“We are not seeing cancers diagnosed that we would have expected to see.”
He said the first six months of the pandemic resulted in a 30% drop in certain cancer diagnostic procedures and an 18% drop in treatments.
“As we emerge into a state of ‘Covid normal’ it is imperative for us all to encourage and support each other to prioritise our health,” he said. “If you have been invited to participate in a cancer screening program, please do not delay.”
The reduction in screening is likely to be due to a number of factors, including the suspension of some medical procedures during lockdowns and a reluctance to visit a GP clinic during a pandemic.
Prostate and breast cancer, head and neck, and melanoma tests decreased most drastically in Victoria, which is the only state whose cancer registry has published pathology figures.
The Cancer Council’s data suggests three groups at highest risk were men, older people and those living in higher socioeconomic areas.
Harper said the delay in diagnosis could be fatal.
“Our concern would be that it may mean that people are diagnosed at a later stage of cancer, where potentially treatment options are not available and cancer may be more advanced,” he said.
“This data gives us time to prepare if there were to be a spike in cancer cases in coming months … This is a unique event, so we don’t actually have any parallels … about what that might look like.”
A surge in late-stage cancer could put pressure on the healthcare system while the threat of the pandemic was still around.
Harper encouraged Australians to use this data as a catalyst to think about what appointments or screens they may have missed in the past year and book them in.
“We are encouraging people not to delay seeking medical help,” he said. “Not to ignore symptoms for which they would otherwise go and see a doctor, and to make sure that they participate in cancer screening activity when given the opportunity to do that.”
Although pathology statistics were available only in Victoria, previous data showed the problem is likely to extend across the country.
A report released by the Cancer Council of Australia in October showed that in the first half of 2020 there were 144,982 fewer mammograms and 443,935 fewer cervical screening tests completed. Between January and July, 144,379 fewer mail-out bowel screening tests were returned compared with previous years.
A study in the UK also showed nearly half of those who had a potential symptom of cancer during the country’s first Covid wave did not see a doctor, even after coughing up blood or developing an unusual lump.
Source: The Guardian
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