Fewer Head and Neck Cancer Diagnoses During COVID May Mean Trouble Ahead

Fewer Americans were newly diagnosed with early-stage head and neck cancer in 2020, a decline of 8 percent from 2019, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But that’s not necessarily good news. Researchers theorized that the drop in diagnoses was due to fewer people accessing healthcare in the fraught and confusing early months of the COVID-19 pandemic because of fear of contracting the virus in healthcare settings. The result may be a future wave of later, more advanced-stage head and neck cancers that could have been caught earlier, according to the study’s senior author, Nosayaba Osazuwa-Peters, PhD, associate professor in head and neck surgery at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“With COVID, we saw a decrease in early-stage diagnoses, which was already a problem,” Dr. Osazuwa-Peters says. “Prior to COVID, only a third of head and neck cancer patients would present with localized disease, meaning the cancer had not spread, and the rest were diagnosed at a later stage.”

“We expect that in subsequent years, we will see more people present with more advanced head and neck cancer because of the [missed opportunities for] early diagnosis in 2020,” he says. That could be a problem for patients because head and neck cancer, like most cancers, is more challenging to treat when it has spread to other areas of the body.

“We always want to catch the disease earlier,” Osazuwa-Peters says. “For head and neck cancer, early-stage treatment might require only surgery if the cancer is localized. Surgery is [already] difficult, but when you add chemotherapy and other treatments, which you do at later stages, patients are sicker and have longer recovery times.”

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