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Cancer Can’t Wait: COVID-19’s Silent Killer

Without Change, Delays in Treatment from Covid-19 Could Increase Cancer Deaths by 50,000 in 2020

Digital Reasoning Healthcare Research Report 

During the first 8 weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the national freeze of “elective surgeries” caused substantial delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment — the effect of which has not been fully understood.  

American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) survey reports that 

  • 50% of cancer patients had a change, delay or disruption to their current cancer treatment 
  • 24% of cancer patients had a delay in treatment and approximately half of those 
  • 13% have not yet had their treatment rescheduled 

Almost all cancer screenings were postponed or canceled.

These delays will have significant near-term and long-term consequences, raising the possibility of a cancer pandemic if nothing changes. 

  • Delayed cancer screenings will result in delayed diagnosis, increasing the prevalence of later-stage cancers that are more difficult to treat and lower rates of survivorship; 
  • Delayed time-to-treatment initiation (TTI) increases the absolute risk of mortality from 1.2-3.2% per week for curative cancers such as early-stage breast and lung cancer (Khorana et al 2019)

Based on the ACS CAN survey, 2020 Cancer Statistics by the American Cancer Society, and current research on the time to treatment initiation, Digital Reasoning data scientists assessed the potential increase in mortality risk for cancer patients diagnosed in 2020 due to Covid-19.  

Without changes in policy and procedure to treat cancer patients without delay, the projected impact is massive:  

  • Over 3/4 of a million cancer patients will be diagnosed with highly curative cancer types and could be affected by these Covid-19 treatment delays. 
  • Currently, an estimated 47,000 cancer patients have already been negatively impacted by treatment delays; 
  • The result of delays has already affected an estimated increase of mortality by 565 to 3,000 patients; 

If delays continue through the remainder of 2020, an estimated increase in cancer deaths by 9,420 to 50,240 (Figure 1).

Figure 1

These estimates do not even take into account the estimated 80,000 missed cancer diagnoses due to delayed or canceled screenings — portending an even higher potential death toll (IQVIA Institute, 2020).  

The call to action for the cancer community is clear — get patients into screenings and treatments as quickly and safely as possible.   

With Digital Reasoning’s Patient Intelligence Oncology platform for accelerated diagnosis, outreach, clinical follow-up, and cancer care coordination, it’s possible to make up this lost ground.  

Join us and our over 200 leading hospital and cancer center partners in fighting this silent killer.  


The Untold Toll — The Pandemic’s Effects on Patients without Covid-19

Khorana AA, Tullio K, Elson P, et al. Time to initial cancer treatment in the United States and association with survival over time: An observational study. PLoS One 2019;14:e0213209. 10.1371/journal.pone.0213209

Chakiba C, Grellety T, Bellera C, Italiano A. Encouraging trends in modern phase 1 oncology trials. N Engl J Med 2018; 378:2242-3.

IQVIA Institute. Shifts in Healthcare Demand, Delivery, and Care During the COVID-19 Era.

My cancer patients already face hard choices. Coronavirus makes them even worse.

COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Cancer Patients and Survivors Survey Findings Summary

Cancer Patients Face Treatment Delays And Uncertainty As Coronavirus Cripples Hospitals

The Pandemic’s Hidden Victims: Sick or Dying, but Not From the Virus

“For Now, We Wait”: Postponing Cancer Surgery During the Coronavirus Crisis

‘A Heck Of A Time To Get Cancer’: Hospitals Defer All But The Most Urgent Treatments

Preventing Infections in Cancer Patients

“If this goes on for six months, 50,000 more people could die of cancer, writes consultant oncologist KAROL SIKORA”

Cancer screenings plunge

Written By
Paul Clark

Paul Clark is our Director of Healthcare Research. Prior to joining Digital Reasoning he served as Vice President of Research & Education at The Health Management Academy, leading the research agenda and educational development for C-Suite executives at America’s leading healthcare systems.