AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Some oncologists in Texas are afraid cancer could become a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While screening is allowed under Governor Greg Abbott’s medical restrictions, some healthcare facilities are not proceeding with regular screenings either to preserve personal protective equipment or to reduce the exposure of COVID-19.
Dr. Laura Chow, the associate director for Clinical Research for Livestrong Cancer Institutes and professor of oncology at the University of Texas Dell Medical School, said they have temporarily stopped some lung cancer screenings.
“For asymptomatic smokers who are recommended for CT scans yearly as screening for lung cancer, they commonly have a high risk of other tobacco-related illnesses, lung disease, heart disease and are more elderly,” Dr. Chow explained. “The risk of severe complications and death with COVID-19 infection may outweigh the potential benefits of doing a CT scan now to diagnose cancer, and it may be better to hold off until the infection rates and/or deaths decline.”
She said other critical screenings proceed, however.
“We will continue to scan and order tests for diagnosis of cancer for patients that have symptoms of cancer, and that never stopped.”
Dr. Shaun McKenzie, FACS, surgical oncologist at Texas Oncology Surgical Specialists–South Austin and Austin North, and director of surgical oncology for St. David’s HealthCare, said some healthcare facilities are holding off on screenings because their supply for PPE cannot be guaranteed.
“Screening procedures such as colonoscopy and mammography are largely performed outside of the hospital setting in imaging centers or endoscopy and outpatient surgery centers. In order to proceed, those centers must have adequate PPE availability per the guidelines provided by the governor. Therefore they will begin reoccurring when such centers can comfortably assure their protective capabilities meet the state’s exemptions,” Dr. McKenzie explained.
“I think all of us are very worried that the cancer population is going to be a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis, that no one anticipated it and because not only are we not able to treat it, every patient right now, but there are patients at home right now that have cancer that don’t know it yet,” Dr. McKenzie added.
Even when all facilities do proceed with normal screening procedures, Dr. McKenzie said people are still hesitant to head to the doctor’s office.
“Patients are scared to death leave their house,” Dr. McKenzie said.
With all of this added together, Dr. McKenzie said he’s afraid this could lead to problems after the pandemic is over.
“We are concerned that at the end of this year, we’re going to see a lot of patients with higher-stage cancers than we did before,” Dr. McKenzie said.
Dr. Chow said the risk of exposure does need to be discussed for more routine screenings.
“For patients that are not symptomatic and getting routine screening tests for early detection of cancer – the risk-benefit needs to be discussed with each patient depending on their risk of contracting COVID-19 and/or risk of being diagnosed with cancer and we are not merely going ahead with screening everybody just because the Governor has loosened restrictions,” Dr. Chow said.
Dr. Chow explained that she feels more COVID-19 testing is needed before both patients and healthcare workers are able to resume full operations again.
“I’m really concerned that unless we have more widespread and easily available, readily available testing, you know, it’s gonna be a little more challenging to be able to ensure the safety of our patients, as well as we’d like,” Dr. Chow said.