Colorectal cancer diagnoses fell over 40% during Covid

Cancer screenings and diagnoses dropped significantly during Covid-19 pandemic, with Spanish researchers presenting new findings showing a 40 per cent fall in the number of colorectal cancer cases diagnosed in a year during Covid.

The study, presented at the ongoing United European Gastroenterology week, was conducted across multiple hospitals in Spain. Of 1,385 cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed over the two-year period, almost two thirds (868 cases, or 62.7 per cent) were diagnosed in the pre-pandemic year from 24,860 colonoscopies.

By contrast, only 517 cases (37.3 per cent) were diagnosed during the pandemic, which also saw a 27 per cent drop in the number of colonoscopies performed, to 17,337.

According to experts, the decline is a consequence of the suspension of screening programmes and the postponement of non-urgent colonoscopy investigations during the pandemic. Fewer cancers were identified by colorectal cancer screening in the pandemic period, with just 22 (4.3 per cent) cases found in comparison to 182 (21 per cent) in the pre-pandemic year. During the pandemic, more patients were diagnosed through symptoms (81.2 per cent of diagnoses) compared with the pre-pandemic year (69 per cent).

“These are very worrying findings indeed — cases of colorectal cancer undoubtedly went undiagnosed during the pandemic. Not only were there fewer diagnoses, but those diagnosed tended to be at a later stage and suffering from more serious symptoms,” said lead author Dr Maria Jose Domper Arnal, from University Clinic Hospital and the Aragon Health Research Institute (IIS Aragon) in Spain.

Further, during the pandemic, there was also a significant increase (14.7 per cent) in the number of patients being diagnosed with serious complications with an increase in symptoms such as bowel perforation, abscesses, bowel obstruction and bleeding requiring hospital admission.

The number of stage IV cancers being diagnosed also rose during the pandemic year, making up 19.9 per cent of cases.

“Colorectal cancer is often curable if it’s caught at an early stage. Our concern is that we’re losing the opportunity to diagnose patients at this early stage, and this will have a knock-on effect on patient outcomes and survival. We are likely to see this fall out for years to come,” Arnal said.