Multiple studies suggest that fewer cancers were diagnosed last year, likely because of less screening. About 75 cancer organizations recently urged a return to prepandemic screening levels as soon as safely possible.
But tumors take years to develop, and some reports suggest that a few months’ delay in screening for certain types of cancer may not have been as bad as feared. For example, researchers in the Netherlands found that a lapse in that country’s mammography program did not lead to more cancers being found at a late stage after screening resumed.
The pandemic also bred some creative solutions, such as wider use of tests that can be done at home. In Philadelphia, a large church partnered with local doctors and used its drive-thru flu shot program to also pass out stool tests for colon cancer screening.
Screening tests differ in their risks and benefits, and health experts have long debated who should get which ones and how often. The pandemic lapse may serve as a “natural experiment” to see their value in modern times versus what’s known from studies done long ago.
Dr. Carmen Guerra had a federal grant to increase screening in racially diverse communities and realized that home tests could help. Studies show these tests, which look for blood in stool, help save lives. People put a tiny stool sample in a tube and mail it to a lab or, in this case, use a drop box at the church. If blood is found, the next step is a colonoscopy.