COVID’s impact on cancer care comes more into focus

Since last March, there has been a steady flow of alarming news about COVID-19’s impact on cancer care. The steep drop in screening rates was among the biggest stories, with roughly a 95% decrease in both mammography and colonoscopies during those first two months of the pandemic alone.

Doctor wearing a face mask sits at a desk looking at an x-ray with a masked patient.

But now, a year out, reports are starting to show that the interruption—while still significant—may not be as detrimental as experts originally feared. A recent study from Penn Medicine that looked at treatment for breast cancer patients highlights this.

With many people staying away from the hospital because of the early unknowns around the virus, a fear that treatments for breast cancer would be delayed or missed persisted. That was a cause for concern because past studies tell us that a delay drives more deaths.

Knowing all this, many health systems and hospitals pivoted to ensure patients stayed the course through thoughtful mitigation strategies. And it worked.

“Patients with newly diagnosed early-stage breast cancer treated at our institution during the COVID-19 pandemic did not wait longer to start therapy compared to patients in previous years,” says Rachel C. Jankowitz, director of the Rena Rowan Breast Center at the Abramson Cancer Center, associate professor of hematology-oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and co-senior author of a recent study in JCO Oncology Practice, along with Amy I. Laughlin, a hematology-oncology fellow at Penn.

“We implemented a number of mitigation strategies to ensure high quality care during the initial phase of the pandemic, including increased use of pre-operative hormonal therapy in appropriately selected patients,” Jankowitz says. “This allowed patients with lower-risk cancers to delay their surgeries during the initial COVID-19 surge without compromising their outcome.”

Known as “bridge care,” hormone therapy had been deemed a safe and effective substitution when surgery is not immediately available. Cancer teams applied a similar approach to other disease types during the pandemic, including endometrial cancers. An expansion of the Penn Center for Cancer Care Innovation’s Cancer Care at Home program—which includes hormone therapy to treat some breast cancers—also helped ensure patients moved forward with treatment.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.