The number of people getting screened for cancer has taken a dangerous drop during the pandemic, and local oncologists are urging residents not to put off the diagnostic tests any longer.

Dr. Christian Thomas

Testing for cancer went down across the nation, including in Maine, either because stay-at-home orders caused many people to forgo annual screenings, such as mammograms, or because patients just wanted to stay away from medical facilities out of concern of being exposed to the coronavirus there, according to Dr. Christian Thomas, an oncologist and director of clinical research at New England Cancer Specialists, which has offices in Scarborough, Topsham and Kennebunk.

“In 2020, we had several months of a significant decline in patients coming into our office. That was mostly in March, April and May,” Thomas said. “It was a mixture. It was not just screenings but also patients who came here for a procedure to ultimately get diagnosed.”

A study for the Community Oncology Alliance, which examined billing frequencies, found nationally decreases of 85% in screenings for breast cancer75% for colon cancer screenings, 74% for prostate cancer screenings and 56% for lung cancer screenings in April 2020 compared to the same time in 2019.

Diagnoses delays will result in people coming for treatment at New England Cancer Specialists with more advanced forms of cancer, Thomas said.

“Screening for cancer saves lives,” he said. “You can argue a bit about who should get screened, at what age and what the best technique is for an individual, but early detection saves lives.”

Thomas and his colleagues at New England Cancer Specialists have joined Time to Screen, a new educational campaign from the Community Oncology Alliance and CancerCare, to encourage people to keep up with screenings for the six common types of cancer: breast, colorectal, cervical, prostate, lung and skin. The website timetoscreen.org provides information on the importance of screening and lists local screening facilities that follow CDC pandemic guidelines. There is also a toll-free hotline, 1-855-537-2733.

“Staying current on recommended screenings is essential to maintaining your health,” said Patricia J. Goldsmith, chief executive officer of CancerCare, a group that provides counseling, case management, support groups, education and financial assistance for those going through cancer treatment. “The more people who hear this message and heed our call to action, the more support we can provide to ensure timely access to and information about vital screenings.”

Breast cancer survivor Tish Russell, pictured here with her granddaughter, Adriana, at the 2018 Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event, had put off getting a mammogram, but once she did, it saved her life, she said. Contributed / American Cancer Society

In Maine last year there were 8,180 diagnoses of breast, uterine, colorectal, leukemia, lung, skin, prostate, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and bladder cancers, the fewest since 2008 when there were 8,140 such diagnoses, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care in the United States has resulted in decreases and delays in identifying new cancers and delivery of treatment. These problems, if unmitigated, will increase cancer morbidity and mortality for years to come,” the Community Oncology Alliance study stated.

Deciding to get screened was a life-saving choice for Cumberland resident Tish Russell, who had delayed getting a mammogram until shortly after her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016.

After a mammogram in March 2016 and a biopsy the following April, Russell was diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer. She has been cancer-free since her bilateral mastectomy in May 2016 and continues to have checkups with her oncologist every three months.

“I think about it all the time,” Russell said of what could have happened had she not decided to have a mammogram. “Thank God I finally made that choice.”

Russell is an active volunteer with the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Greater Portland event as a way to give back and be a resource for people who has gone through what she has.

In March through May of this year, an American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network online survey of 1,280 patients and survivors diagnosed with cancer in the last seven years found that 35% reported the pandemic affected their ability to access care. Roughly 1 in 6 reported a delay or interruption in their cancer-screening schedule, including 11% who experienced a screening delay for a cancer that had already been diagnosed.

Thomas said New England Cancer Specialists’ Scarborough office never closed or cut back hours, and patients were still able to get access to treatment and monitoring, but the survey found that cancer-care delays did take place across the nation. These delays, according to respondents, were mostly because of logistical issues, such as staffing shortages or a lack of available appointments at cancer centers, and because of patients’ concerns about the risks of contracting the virus.

“While conditions are certainly improving, it remains clear there is more work to be done to ensure patients and survivors can get the health care they need when they need it,” said Lisa Lacasse, president of The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Hopefully, as more health care facilities safely resume full operations and more people are able to get vaccinated, screenings – which are essential to early cancer detection and prevention – can be more easily accessed.”

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