New cancer diagnoses down 20% in Alberta during pandemic: AHS

CALGARY — Alberta has seen a drop in the number of new cancer cases being diagnosed during the pandemic, but doctors say that doesn’t mean people aren’t developing the disease. 

“Cancer has not gone away,” said Dr. Douglas Stewart, medical oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and senior medical director for the cancer strategic clinical network, Alberta Health Services. 

“It is still really important to diagnose and treat in a timely manner. We are seeing decrease rates of cancer diagnosis related to the pandemic.”

According to Alberta Health Services, the number of new cancers diagnosed between March and October is 20 per cent lower than the same time period last year.

AHS says within that number, there are concerns in the reduction in diagnosis of early-stage cancers, which equal 13 per cent, or nearly 1,900 undiagnosed cases. 

AHS said it can’t accurately speculate on the exact number of new cases that have not been diagnosed, but the number of newly diagnosed cancers typically remains consistent from year-to-year.

“Prior to the pandemic, fortunately, two-thirds of cancer patients survived their cancer, but we worry with delayed diagnosis that’s going to change,” said Stewart. “Despite the pandemic, cancer still needs to be diagnosed and managed.”

Stewart said when cancer screening programs paused in March, that explained why diagnosis rates dropped dramatically in April and May. Screenings fully resumed mid-June but the trend has continued.

AHS said all Albertans with booked appointments or those who require screening are being seen and clinics are prioritizing patients as needed. 

Stewart said many people have expressed they have been reluctant to seek medical attention for new problems over fears of the virus. He stresses enhanced safety measures are in place to keep patients and staff safe.

“People who have warning symptoms of cancer should seek medical attention and undergo appropriate testing because early diagnosis results in better outcomes,” said Stewart. 

He says it’s too early to predict how the pandemic will affect cancer survival rates.

“Certainly the decline in the cancer rates being reported in Alberta are a concern,” said Elizabeth Holmes, senior manager of policy and surveillance with the Canadian Cancer Society.

“Essentially when cancer is found and treated earlier, the chances of successful treatment are better. So it’s so important to be aware of what’s right for your body and get it checked out as soon as possible.”

Holmes says there are some ways to reduce the risk of cancer such as living smoke-free, being active, eating well and practicing sun safety. 

AHS said individuals most likely to receive new cancer diagnoses are both males and females between the ages of 50 to 85, with the highest percentage being 75 to 85 year olds. 

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