Here in Michigan, as in all other places around the country, most of us put off important preventative appointments throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are just beginning to get those checkups back on the calendar. Cancer screenings fall into this category, too, and we must work hard to offset the effects of those "lost" months.
Health organizations knew how critical it was to follow federal and state guidelines to help slow the spread of this virus within our communities and nation. Many of our osteopathic physicians and medical students were and are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. We knew our patients had to stay home and safe while hospital resources were stretched thin in many parts of our Great Lakes State and country. We adapted and incorporated more telemedicine wherever possible.The results of that early quarantine period are plain to see. In March, nationwide screenings for breast, cervical and colon cancer plummeted between 86 percent and 94 percent compared to the previous three years.
Kristopher 'Kris' Nicholoff is CEO and executive director of the Michigan Osteopathic Association
That’s why it’s imperative that we now turn around this delay in testing as those screenings can again be done safely. According to a recent study, holding off on screenings could translate into more than 80,000 diagnoses of cancer being either delayed or missed. It could mean an increase in new and late-stage cancer diagnoses. The director of the National Cancer Institute noted this summer that the effect of delayed screening and treatment for breast and colorectal cancers alone could mean 10,000 more deaths over the next decade.
Cancer is already a serious enough problem in Michigan. We’re ranked 14th in cancer mortality nationwide. This collection of more than 100 diseases that we often singularly call “cancer” is the second leading cause of death in our state. Estimates show that Michigan faces higher incidences of bladder, esophagus and prostate cancer in particular, compared to national averages.
It’s widely known that routine cancer screenings serve as highly effective preventive measures. Whether mammography, colonoscopy, or pap smear, these tests can detect cancer earlier and often lead to more effective, earlier treatments. They significantly reduce death rates. Consider that survival rates for cancers caught early are about 90 percent over five years compared to just a little more than 20 percent over the time after cancer has spread.
But there’s a key catch too as out of the many different types of cancer that exist, only four currently have effective screenings.
That’s also why continued innovation for detecting cancer is so important. Fortunately, screening breakthroughs may soon be available. One new approach now under study in clinical testing is called multi-cancer early detection – or MCED for short.
Using a simple blood draw, one MCED test that’s being developed and studied can screen for more than 50 kinds of cancer with high accuracy at one time. Such a test that discerns more cancers and does so early, before the cancer has spread, could dramatically cut cancer mortality. That’s why start-ups are entering the field in collaboration with highly credible academic medical partners.
Even so, we must overcome certain obstacles, like expected protracted timelines for getting revolutionary cancer screenings covered by insurance. Delays in getting these new tests approved and available is unacceptable, and access for those at risk must be prioritized.
As physicians deeply committed to holistic health and wellness, none of us wants to wait to begin saving lives. Our health care system must focus on the patient and the person first and should embrace game-changing technology quickly. Addressing the toll of cancer — and the coronavirus — will require nothing less.