Looking back on the last three years of life during the global pandemic, each of us has a unique experience with the crisis.
Some of us got sick. Some of us unexpectedly lost loved ones or our jobs. Many of us disinfected our groceries. But none of us was left completely untouched.
Millions of Americans followed the directives of health care experts and implemented tactics to isolate ourselves and our families from others to prevent the highly contagious virus from spreading. This approach, to be sure, saved many lives. It also expedited, however, the deaths of countless others not yet diagnosed with or being treated for cancer.
Think back to the spring and early summer months of 2020. Emotions crept up on us with even a routine errand to the grocery store. The fear before contemplating stepping into a hospital or doctor’s office was visceral, with a tragic correlation between leaving our homes and debilitating sickness or death.
This fear kept millions of healthy people locked in their homes, safely sealed away from neighbors, friends, and the threat of infection and illness. But imagine that moment again as someone with an immune system so fragile that any infection could kill you quickly.
As the pandemic raged, millions of cancer patients were already quietly fighting for their lives against an illness often more aggressive than any strain of coronavirus. This population, one that had cancer, was unable to see their doctors or have their blood tested, afraid to enter a hospital overflowing with communicable COVID-19 patients; these are the disproportionately forgotten victims of the pandemic.
But they are certainly not the only ones. Far too often over the last three years, the fear of COVID-19 overshadowed people’s fear of cancer. The fear stopped millions of Americans from seeking early detection and preventive examinations, screenings and scans that detect aggressive and progressive cancers early, when treatment is easier and more effective.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Gwen Darien, a three-time cancer survivor, spoke to the New Yorker about a call from her doctor’s office confirming an upcoming visit, which she decided to postpone indefinitely: “I was very unnerved. I thought about all the risks. First, I’d have to get transportation — Uber or train or subway. Then I’d have to walk into the doctor’s office, near a hospital with COVID-19 patients. Then I’d have to be in the office with other people, even if they are socially distanced. I’d much rather just wait.”
It is estimated that close to 10 million people, like Gwen, waited to get their cancer screenings between March and May 2020, and many more in subsequent waves. At the height of the pandemic, routine cancer screenings declined by more than 90%. Doctors are now diagnosing many late-stage cancers that might have been caught earlier had delayed or canceled care not become systemic.
So how do we close the screening gap cracked open by the COVID-19 pandemic? The American Cancer Society is once again aggressively stepping up its reach into communities across the country and encouraging age-appropriate populations to prioritize and schedule screenings for breast, cervical, colorectal, lung and prostate cancers.
Cancer Society leaders, along with strategic partners across the country, are working to increase screening rates to exceed pre-pandemic levels and advance health equity.
“Research shows that delays and drops in cancer screening will lead to cancers that are diagnosed in later stages, making them harder to treat,” said Dr. Karen Knudsen, American Cancer Society chief executive officer. “Screening is an integral and effective part of our overarching goal to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to prevent, detect, treat, and survive cancer.”
It’s difficult to imagine an upside to the devastation caused by the pandemic. Few positives exist. But if the data gleaned from this pandemic allows each of us to recalibrate the critical importance of cancer screening and examination, our lives and the lives of our loved ones will almost certainly change dramatically, and for the better.
• Michael Marquardt is a global business adviser and former chair of the American Cancer Society’s board of directors.
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