New cancer diagnoses climb after plummeting early during COVID-19 pandemic

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Posted at 9:00 PM, Aug 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-07 00:06:41-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The number of newly diagnosed cancer patients at the University of Kansas Cancer Center fell for several weeks during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.

From mid-March until May, the KU Cancer Center experienced a 32% to 39% decrease in new patients on a weekly basis.

Now, the number of new patients is increasing again at a rate above pre-pandemic weekly averages.

“Mid-March, we pretty much shut down a lot of our institution for elective-type procedures, but cancer didn’t stop,” Dr. Terry Tsue, the physician in chief at the Cancer Center, said.

At the outset of the pandemic, federal and local health officials urged people to stay home.

Elective procedures, such as colonoscopies and mammograms along with other cancer screening tests, were put on hold as hospitals and doctors' offices experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Tsue said the biggest factor that contributed to the lower diagnoses numbers was, and continues to be, fear.

“Patients were scared to come, go outside the house,” he said. “People are still scared to go in, even though we are above the pre-COVID levels. There is still fear and you can sense that.”

The American Cancer Society encourages patients to get screened, noting that early detection can help save lives. With hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs and access to health insurance, the American Cancer Society fears people will forgo these screenings.

“When we can’t detect (cancer) early, we know it’s going to have a huge affect down the line," Dan Leong, the senior manager of Cancer Control Strategic Partnerships for the American Cancer Society North Region, said. "The last thing we want is for patients to show up with symptoms of late-stage cancer, stage three or four cancers, at a hospital emergency department."

Leong said there are still ways those who have lost their jobs and health insurance can get health care, including visiting community clinics.

“We want people to not forget about their health," he said. "Sometimes, you want to put it off, but really have those prompt conversations and regular conversations to get the appropriate cancer screenings because it’s so important."