MRI of a breast with cancer. Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

A UC San Diego Health oncologist presented data Friday showing a decrease in people diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and an increase in those diagnosed with advanced cases in 2020 and the first half of this year when compared to 2019, possibly due in part to patients putting off routine health screenings as a result of the pandemic.

Dr. Kathryn A. Gold, reporting at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said that in 2019, 2% of Moores Cancer Center at UCSD Health patients received a new diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer, also known as metastatic disease. That number increased to 6% in 2020 and 8% so far in 2021.

“Based on our clinical experiences, we suspected that we would see an increase in late-stage cancer diagnoses and our data is showing that to be true for breast cancer,” Gold said. “Patients with breast cancer were more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced disease after the start of the COVID- 19 pandemic, possibly due to delayed and canceled preventative screenings.”

The number of patients with the earliest stage of breast cancer, called stage I, decreased from 64% in 2019 to 51% in 2020 and 42% so far in 2021. While stage I breast cancer is often treatable, stage IV breast cancer is more life-threatening.

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 emerged, hospitals were forced to re-evaluate which clinics would continue to see patients in person, which would need to move to telehealth and which would need to pause treatment altogether. Although hospitals have resumed operations, individuals have missed annual screenings or remain hesitant to resume active health care, Gold said.

“Regular screenings and visits to your physician are an essential part of maintaining good health,” she said. “We encourage everyone to get back to your doctor’s office for preventive care because early detection saves lives. Don’t delay.”

The National Cancer Institute estimates 281,550 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. Although one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, 90% of patients with breast cancer survive five years or longer due to early detection and treatment. Despite a high survival rate, 43,600 women will die from the disease this year.

–City News Service

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