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National Cancer Institute Director Neil Sharpless says mortality from delays in cancer screenings due to COVID19 pandemic could result in tens of thousands of extra deaths in next decade

Reporter: Stephen J Williams, PhD

Source: https://cancerletter.com/articles/20200619_1/

NCI Director’s Report

Sharpless: COVID-19 expected to increase mortality by at least 10,000 deaths from breast and colorectal cancers over 10 years

By Matthew Bin Han Ong

This story is part of The Cancer Letter’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19’s impact on oncology. A full list of our coverage, as well as the latest meeting cancellations, is available here.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely cause at least 10,000 excess deaths from breast cancer and colorectal cancer over the next 10 years in the United States.

Scenarios run by NCI and affiliated modeling groups predict that delays in screening for and diagnosis of breast and colorectal cancers will lead to a 1% increase in deaths through 2030. This translates into 10,000 additional deaths, on top of the expected one million deaths resulting from these two cancers.

“For both these cancer types, we believe the pandemic will influence cancer deaths for at least a decade,” NCI Director Ned Sharpless said in a virtual joint meeting of the Board of Scientific Advisors and the National Cancer Advisory Board June 15. “I find this worrisome as cancer mortality is common. Even a 1% increase every decade is a lot of cancer suffering.

“And this analysis, frankly, is pretty conservative. We do not consider cancers other than those of breast and colon, but there is every reason to believe the pandemic will affect other types of cancer, too. We did not account for the additional non-lethal morbidity from upstaging, but this could also be significant and burdensome.”

An editorial by Sharpless on this subject appears in the journal Science.

The early analyses, conducted by the institute’s Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network, focused on breast and colorectal cancers, because these are common, with relatively high screening rates.

CISNET modelers created four scenarios to assess long-term increases in cancer mortality rates for these two diseases:

  1. The pandemic has no effect on cancer mortality

 

  1. Delayed screening—with 75% reduction in mammography and, colorectal screening and adenoma surveillance for six months

 

  1. Delayed diagnosis—with one-third of people delaying follow-up after a positive screening or diagnostic mammogram, positive FIT or clinical symptoms for six months during a six-month period

 

  1. Combination of scenarios two and three

 

Treatment scenarios after diagnosis were not included in the model. These would be: delays in treatment, cancellation of treatment, or modified treatment.

“What we did is show the impact of the number of excess deaths per year for 10 years for each year starting in 2020 for scenario four versus scenario one,” Eric “Rocky” Feuer, chief of the NCI’s Statistical Research and Applications Branch in the Surveillance Research Program, said to The Cancer Letter.

Feuer is the overall project scientist for CISNET, a collaborative group of investigators who use simulation modeling to guide public health research and priorities.

“The results for breast cancer were somewhat larger than for colorectal,” Feuer said. “And that’s because breast cancer has a longer preclinical natural history relative to colorectal cancer.”

Modelers in oncology are creating a global modeling consortium, COVID-19 and Cancer Taskforce, to “support decision-making in cancer control both during and after the crisis.” The consortium is supported by the Union for International Cancer Control, The International Agency for Research on Cancer, The International Cancer Screening Network, the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, and Cancer Council NSW, Australia.

A spike in cancer mortality rates threatens to reverse or slow down—at least in the medium term—the steady trend of reduction of cancer deaths. On Jan. 8, the American Cancer Society published its annual estimates of new cancer cases and deaths, declaring that the latest data—from 2016 to 2017—show the “largest ever single-year drop in overall cancer mortality of 2.2%.” Experts say that innovation in lung cancer treatment and the success of smoking cessation programs are driving the sharp decrease (The Cancer LetterFeb. 7, 2020).

The pandemic is expected to have broader impact, including increases in mortality rates for other cancer types. Also, variations in severity of COVID-19 in different regions in the U.S. will influence mortality metrics.

“There’s some other cancers that might have delays in screening—for example cervical, prostate, and lung cancer, although lung cancer screening rates are still quite low and prostate cancer screening should only be conducted on those who determine that the benefits outweigh the harms,” Feuer said. “So, those are the major screening cancers, but impacts of delays in treatment, canceling treatment or alternative treatments—could impact a larger range of cancer sites.

“This model assumes a moderate disruption which resolves after six months, and doesn’t consider non-lethal morbidities associated with the delay. One thing I think probably is occurring is regional variation in these impacts,” Feuer said. “If you’re living in New York City where things were ground zero for some of the worst impact early on, probably delays were larger than other areas of the country. But now, as we’re seeing upticks in other areas of the country, there may be in impact in these areas as well”

How can health care providers mitigate some of these harms? For example, for people who delayed screening and diagnosis, are providers able to perform triage, so that those at highest risk are prioritized?

“From a strictly cancer control point of view, let’s get those people who delayed screening, or followup to a positive test, or treatment back on schedule as soon as possible,” Feuer said. “But it’s not a simple calculus, because in every situation, we have to weigh the harms and benefits. As we come out of the pandemic, it tips more and more to, ‘Let’s get back to business with respect to cancer control.’

“Telemedicine doesn’t completely substitute for seeing patients in person, but at least people could get the advice they need, and then are triaged through their health care providers to indicate if they really should prioritize coming in. That helps the individual and the health care provider  weigh the harms and benefits, and try to strategize about what’s best for any individual.”

If the pandemic continues to disrupt routine care, cancer-related mortality rates would rise beyond the predictions in this model.

“I think this analysis begins to help us understand the costs with regard to cancer outcomes of the pandemic,” Sharpless said. “Let’s all agree we will do everything in our power to minimize these adverse effects, to protect our patients from cancer suffering.”

 

For more Articles on COVID-19 please see our Coronavirus Portal at

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/coronavirus-portal/

 

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