Experts have warned that thousands of cancer diagnoses were delayed or missed during COVID-19 restrictions, putting lives at risk.
After analysing data from the Victorian Cancer Registry, researchers from Cancer Council Victoria, Monash University and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre estimated there were almost 5500 fewer pathology tests ordered to diagnose the disease, which would have led to around 2530 cancer diagnoses being delayed or missed.
The authors, led by Dr Luc te Marvelde, head of data analytics at the Victorian Cancer Registry, wrote in a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia that the number of tests ordered between April 1 and October 15, 2020, was about 10 per cent less than would have been expected.
"By tumour group, the relative reductions were most marked for prostate cancer, head and neck tumours, melanoma, and breast cancer; they were greater for men, people aged 50 years or more, and for people in areas of higher socio-economic position," they wrote.
Victorian Cancer Registry director Professor Sue Evans said delays or missed diagnoses could be devastating for patients and families.
"Our modelling indicates that it's possible that approximately 2500 Victorians will not only be faced with the prospect of being diagnosed with cancer but with a later stage cancer than they possibly may have been, and this would be devastating for patients, families and loved ones," she said in a statement.
The authors warned the impact would be greatest for patients with aggressive cancers.
"Changes in care delivery during the restrictions, including suspension of screening services and outpatient clinics and postponed surveillance of existing cancers, may have affected notification numbers for some tumour groups and consequently the estimated number of delayed diagnoses," they wrote.
It is estimated that approximately 2,500 cancers may have gone undiagnosed in Victoria over just six and a half months during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.— Cancer Council Victoria (@CancerVic) February 28, 2021
Read more about the @CancerVic data published in @theMJA today: https://t.co/DQzvtgT230#DontDelayGetCheckedpic.twitter.com/IIf1WwT8gT
They also warned the health system must plan for a possible surge in cancer diagnoses over the next six to 12 months.
The experts also warned the health system must plan for a possible surge in cancer diagnoses over the next six to 12 months.
"This potential spike in later-stage cancers could increase demand on our health system, as well as on supportive care services," Professor Evans said.
The report authors said there was a need for media campaigns to encourage people to not further delay seeking medical attention, which might ameliorate any negative impact of delayed cancer diagnosis.
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Cancer Council Victoria chief executive Todd Harper said there had been a 30 per cent drop in certain cancer diagnostic procedures, and an 18 per cent drop in treatments during the first six months of the pandemic.
"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. If you have been invited to participate in a cancer screening program, please do not delay," Mr Harper said.
"Cancer screening saves lives - it is one of the most effective ways to detect the early signs of cancer, when successful treatment is more likely."
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