In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, as people avoided doctors’ offices and hospitals canceled nonessential appointments, routine cancer screenings plummeted. Now, we’re starting to see the consequences.
ProPublica tells the story of Teresa Ruvalcaba, a factory worker in Chicago who ignored searing pain in her chest for six months. She was busy with work and afraid of catching COVID-19 at the doctor’s office, and when she finally went to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with advanced inflammatory breast cancer. It was one of the most severe cases oncologist Pam Khosla had seen in a decade.
Cancer death rates have dropped over 30 percent since the early 1990s, a decline fueled by early detection and new treatments. But the past year caused an extraordinary, unprecedented disruption in cancer care. People didn’t come to the hospital until their health had deteriorated so badly that they struggled to breathe, Khosla described to ProPublica:
Recently, she counted at least 10 cases of advanced cancer in one four-week period. She saw one patient with a grapefruit-sized mass on his neck. Another, whose tumor had pushed his brain dangerously close to the skull, was transferred to hospice. “He never got to see the light of treatment,” Khosla said. All of these patients had been afraid to seek treatment at the hospital during the pandemic.
It’ll be years before we see the full extent of the harm caused by pandemic-driven delays in cancer treatment. The National Cancer Institute predicts that postponements in diagnosing breast and colorectal cancer will lead to around 10,000 excess deaths in the next decade.
Ruvalcaba’s story adds a face to the faceless statistics around diagnosis delays and shows in vivid detail how the ripple effects from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to quietly impact families all across the country for years.
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