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Fear of COVID is causing patients to skip screenings, doctors predict spike in cancer death rates

Posted at 11:25 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-17 23:25:39-05

BALTIMORE — Doctors are predicting cancer death rates will spike because of the pandemic, from missed screenings and fear of the virus, something they're already seeing.

"There's been a number of patients who presented with locally advanced breast cancer. This is related to the pandemic, there’s no doubt in my mind. They were afraid and they were unable to reach out," said Dr. Maen Farha, the Medical Director of the Breast Center at Medstar Good Samaritan Hospital.

Two patients wanted to talk with WMAR-2 News about this but they've just been too sick from their treatment. They both waited too long to come in for help. Dr. Farha said, "this really put the patient at a really huge risk, from something that’s normally curable to something that has a 50/50 chance of survival."

And it's not just breast cancer. Dr. Farha said his colleagues "have seen a lot of patients who had obstructing colon cancers, usually see a couple of these a year but we had a rash of these."

Survival rates are much higher when cancers are detected early. Nina Teresi just found out she has breast cancer but it was detected early so she's stage one. She was diagnosed in November and had a lumpectomy in mid-December. Now, she has to undergo weeks of radiation.

"If I had waited until after this pandemic it definitely would have been much bigger. I might have needed chemo instead of just radiation," said Teresi.

She found out after getting a mammogram and a follow up test. Her mammogram was originally scheduled for the spring but screenings were canceled with the rest of the shutdown so she got her mammogram in September.

"They called me a week later and said yeah you have some cancerous cells. I don’t have any lumps I didn’t feel anything so I would never know if I hadn’t gone for my annual exam," said Teresi.

She's encouraging you to keep your appointments and do your regular screenings. "Don't wait. Don't be scared. I feel very safe to every appointment I've gone to."

Dr. Farha stressed that hospitals are safe. He said, "the transmission in medical facilities have been very low for the public. Nurses and providers who see patients in the hospital with Covid are the highest risk but most patients that come to hospital outpatient encounter or outpatient procedure the transmission of Covid is very, very rare."

If you still don't feel comfortable coming in, there are other virtual options like Telehealth. Screenings are crucial in detecting some cancers early but there's only a handful of screenings out there when there are dozens of cancers.

That's why one health care company, Grail, is working to use blood tests to detect cancer early. They have clinical studies that test for more than 50 cancers. Something Dr. Farha is optimistic about having available in the future to help diagnose those hidden cancers.