Delays To Colorectal Cancer Screenings Due to COVID-19 Worsening Mortality Rates

As reported in EMJ Reviews; the novel coronavirus has gripped the world— fueling a wave of medical innovation and prioritization. However, the excess of need has made the normal flow of resources less available and accessible, along with many features of normal life. This increased wait time comes at a cost. The United European Gastroenterology Week met virtually this year, where researchers discussed how delays to screening for colorectal cancer (CRC) due to COVID-19 has increased rates of the disease, the second most deadly type of cancer. Normally, the screenings help many patients caught the disease before it advanced to critical stages. However, with the suspension of such screenings, many patients slip through, enabling their disease to manifest into stages with no return.

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a cancer of the colon or rectum, the final part of the digestive system. When the disease develops, patient’s often experience unusual growths known as polyps, or growths of cells on the colon. If these develop into cancer, they may cause rectal bleeding, abdominal discomfort, cramps, gas, pain, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and a change and frustration in bowel habits. However, most patients have no symptoms in the early stages.  Also known as ‘colon cancer’, this form of the disease is both the most common digestive cancer and the second most common cause of death among cancers.

COVID-19 Delays

The scientific community wanted to find out how COVID-19 delays are impacting the disease’s progression and mortality rates. At the University of Bologna in Italy, researchers looked into how the suspension of early screening affected outcomes of patients with colorectal cancer. They modeled the rate and effects of disease advancement if a person does not get a colonoscopy.
They found that when screenings were delayed by zero to three months, 74% of cases would be in stages 1 and 2. However, if patients experience longer delays in receiving the screenings from seven months to over a year, the disease has time to fester, with the incidence of advancement going from 26% of patients to 29%. They also notably found that delays increased from 0-3 months to over a year would increase mortality rates by 12%.
At the conference, lead author of the study Luigi Ricciardiello said,
“It is therefore essential that vital diagnosis tools, like screening programmes, continue and help to prevent mortality rates from rising even further. Healthcare authorities need to act urgently on how they reorganise activities during COVID-19, without compromising the diagnosis of other high-impact diseases like this research shows.”

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