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Live Mic: Treating cancer during a global pandemic

Cancer patients and survivors are having a hard time during the coronavirus pandemic, as many had their appointments and treatments delayed in the spring. (Jordan Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus pandemic may be contributing to the number of cancer deaths in the United States.

The director of the National Cancer Institute predicts the number of Americans dying from breast or colorectal cancer will increase by almost 10,000 within a decade because of the impact of coronavirus on oncology care, according to an NBC news article.

“There can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing delayed diagnosis and suboptimal care for people with cancer,” wrote Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless in an editorial published Thursday in the journal Science.

Dr. John H. Ward, interim senior director of Clinical Affairs and interim physician-in-chief of Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and professor of medicine, joined Lee Lonsberry on Live Mic to discuss the ramifications.

Lee asked if the prediction of 10,000 additional deaths was a reasonable assumption.

“The key thing is how long we’re delaying screening. How long are we delaying treatment? How long are we delaying dealing with those important diseases? We had a priority here [Huntsman Cancer Institute] to make sure we don’t delay treatment on things that require treatment. After what was a relatively brief hiatus, screening is now taking place again. So I’m hopeful those numbers will be on the high end,” Dr. Ward said.

Screenings returning to normal

“Have you observed that the screening numbers are returning to some semblance of the rate at which individuals were seeking screening before coronavirus showed up?” Lee asked.

“Yes, it appears to be that way. We initially, as did many other people did, restricted screenings and delayed some elective procedures that were low-risk and used some strategies to treat cancers until surgery could be done,” Dr. Ward said.

“By now, we’re pretty much full-bore ahead. . . We’ve been trying to balance the needs of cancer patients with the need to protect our patients, many of whom are immuno-suppressed because of their treatment,” he said.

Early diagnosis is key

Lee asked if a three-month delay in treating or screening for cancer would make a difference?

“Probably for the most part three months won’t make a difference,” Dr. Ward said. “For some cancers, it may but for the majority, it won’t make a difference. Still, we preach that early diagnosis is the key to outstanding treatment. We like people to be screened on time. We like them not to neglect needed screening.”

Is it safe?

“What assurances can you give a patient who is putting off a screening because they don’t know what’s floating around in the air in a hospital setting?” Lee asked.

“We, as are most other health care facilities, are taking steps to make things as safe as possible. Some people might say that we are hypersensitive to this. We have limited-visitor policies. We have ways to screen people at the doors. . . I actually feel safer here at Huntsman Cancer Hospital than I do at home or at the grocery store.”

Dr. Ward said steps are taken to make sure any COVID-19 infections in cancer patients at Huntsman are treated at University Hospital.

“We are grateful they have worked with us to keep our particular hospital free of COVID,” he said, adding that the overall goal is to keep the patient safe and treat cancer in a timely and effective way.


Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry can be heard weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.