Delayed Cancer Screening Could Cause Increase in Deaths, Study Says

Carolyn Crist

October 12, 2020

Delays in colorectal cancer screening due to the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to higher rates of advanced-stage cancer and death, according to a new study.

When compared with a delay of less than three months, the longer delay seen this year may result in an 11.9% increase in death rates.

"Across the globe, healthcare systems are facing serious difficulties while dealing with COVID-19, and it is imperative that support is given to the public and patients throughout the crisis, including for high-impact diseases such as colorectal cancer," Luigi Ricciardiello, the lead study author and a professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, said in a statement.

Ricciardiello and colleagues presented their research on Monday at UEG Week Virtual 2020, an international conference for gastroenterologists. The study will be published in the UEG Journal .

The researchers created a model to forecast the effects of delayed cancer screening during 2020. A "moderate" delay of 7-12 months caused a 3% increase in advanced-stage colon cancer, and a long delay of more than 12 months caused a 7% increase in advanced cancer.

Based on a survival rate of 5 years for stage 3 or stage 4 colorectal cancer, the death rate would increase nearly 12% when screening is delayed for more than a year, as compared with less than three months of delay.

The research team found similar results when forecasting advanced-stage cancer and deaths earlier this year. In a paper published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology in early September, they projected that deaths could increase 12% if screening is delayed for more than a year.

Throughout the pandemic, screening programs have been delayed in many countries, particularly across Europe.

"Healthcare authorities need to act urgently on how they reorganise activities during COVID-19, without compromising the diagnosis of other high-impact diseases like this research shows," Ricciardiello said.

United European Gastroenterology, a professional medical organization for digestive health specialists, has called for policymakers to implement colon cancer screening programs across the European Union. Annually, more than 375,000 new cases are diagnosed across the EU, and more than 170,000 people die from colorectal cancer, according to a UEG report.

"Early-stage diagnosis of colorectal cancer is crucial — it's far easier to treat and enhances optimal patient outcomes," Ricciardiello said. "It is therefore essential that vital diagnosis tools, like screening programmes, continue and help to prevent mortality rates from rising even further."


EurekAlert, "COVID-related delays to CRC screening causing 11.9% rise in death rates, research reveals."

UEG, "UEG Week Virtual 2020."

UEG Journal, "UEG Journal COVID Collection."

Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, "Impact of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on colorectal cancer screening delay: effect on stage shift and increased mortality."

UEG, "Coordinating European Action Against Colorectal Cancer."