Increase in Late-Stage Cancer Diagnoses After Pandemic

M. Alexander Otto, MMS, PA

February 15, 2022

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A drop-off in cancer screening during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a marked increase in people presenting with advanced breast and colon cancer at Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla, California, according to a research letter in JAMA Network Open.

"The number of patients presenting at late, incurable stages is increasing," say the authors, led by Jade Zifei Zhou, MD, PhD, a hematology/oncology fellow at the center, which is affiliated with the University of California, San Diego.

As the pandemic unfolded and much of routine medicine was put on hold, the postponement or delay in mammograms, colonoscopies, and other screenings led many cancer experts to warn of trouble ahead. In June 2020, for instance, the National Cancer Institute predicted tens of thousands of excess cancer deaths through 2030 due to missed screenings and delays in care.

The message now, Zhou and colleagues say, is that "patients who have delayed preventative care during the pandemic should be encouraged to resume treatment as soon as possible."

The team compared the number of people presenting to their cancer center with stage I and IV disease, either for a new diagnosis or a second opinion, during 2019 and with the number during 2020, the first year of the pandemic. The review included over 500 patients, almost 90% of whom were women aged 58 years on average.

While 63.9% of patients with breast cancer presented with stage I disease in 2019, 51.3% did so in 2020. Conversely, while just 1.9% presented with stage IV breast cancer in 2019, the number went up to 6.2% in 2020.

The numbers were even worse from January through March 2021, with only 41.9% of women presenting with stage I and 8% presenting with stage IV breast cancer.

It was the same story for colon cancer, but because of smaller numbers, the findings were not statistically significant.

After the start of the pandemic, the number of patients presenting with stage I colon cancer fell form 17.8% (eight patients) to 14.6% (six patients), while stage IV presentations climbed from 6.7% (three) to 19.5% (eight).

Across all cancer types, stage I presentations fell from 31.9% in 2019 to 29% in 2020, while stage IV presentations rose from 26% to 26.4%.

One of the study limits is that the patients who came in for a second opinion could have been newly diagnosed but might also have been referred for refractory disease, the authors comment.

No funding for this study was reported. Senior author Kathryn Ann Gold, MD, reported personal fees from AstraZeneca, Takeda, Rakuten, and Regeneron as well as grants from Pfizer and Pharmacyclics.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online February 15, 2022.

M. Alexander Otto is a physician assistant with a master's degree in medical science. He is an award-winning medical journalist who worked for several major news outlets before joining Medscape and is an MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow. Email:

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