Fewer Alaskans screened for cancer in 2020 than pre-pandemic News Staff

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Fewer Alaska residents had routine cancer screenings in 2020 than in the year before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors said.

Some medical providers said the screening decrease was likely linked to anxiety related to the virus that has lasted through the pandemic, Anchorage Daily News reported Monday.

The decrease could also be related to a temporary ban on elective medical procedures the state enacted in March to preserve personal protective equipment and potentially reduce COVID-19 cases.

That elective procedure prohibition was lifted in April, although virus cases surged in the summer and through the fall and winter and kept virus anxiety levels high.

Some providers have shifted to virtual medical care, which is helpful for some types of cancer screenings, but not all.

Routine cancer screening increases the likelihood of survival by speeding up diagnoses. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends asymptomatic testing for cervical, breast, colon and lung cancer.

“Anecdotally, from my personal experience, there have been more cases than normal where there’s a clinical change in the person’s status because of logistics related to the pandemic,” said Anusiyanthan Mariampillai, an oncologist at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

Mariampillai said it is too early to know whether decreased screening will significantly impact Alaska cancer rates and deaths.

“But we may in the next year or so see that change,” Mariampillai said.

An important factor will be how long patients delay screening. Waiting a year can be more detrimental than pausing for a couple weeks or months, Mariampillai said.

There were 330 fewer mammograms and 28 fewer lung cancer screenings last year than there were in 2019 at Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital, said Paul Hawkins, director of the hospital’s diagnostic imaging centre.

Szilvia Salamon, a family physician with Providence Medical Group Primary Care, said her department tracked a 4% decrease in patients who remained current with colon and breast cancer screening between November 2019 and November 2020.

“If we (screen) in specific intervals, there’s a very good chance that if a cancer is found, it’s going to be its early stages,” Salamon said. “That makes chances of successful treatment much higher.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The Associated Press

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