Winston Churchill once said, “healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” This rang true then and still holds today. We sometimes forget that our past leaders confronted a pandemic of even greater proportions in 1918 and saw the impact on society of a worldwide health crisis. Our efforts as a community to not forget the lessons of the past, do all we can to prevent the continued spread of the virus and minimize the impact of COVID-19 are essential. Society currently faces many upheavals, but we must not forget our health is essential, as well.
We must remember and focus on the fact that there are many threats to our health above and beyond COVID-19: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases, stroke… among many others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that COVID-19 related illness will be the third leading cause of death in the US in 2020, behind heart disease and cancer.
During the early days of the pandemic, many people, justifiably so, were hesitant to leave their homes, especially to enter provider offices or hospitals for office visits or procedures. Patients ultimately utilized our health care facilities mainly to address acute medical issues. Telehealth platforms for communicating with health care providers flourished, and the vast majority of patient/provider interactions were virtual. Although the percentage of patient visits being performed virtually have decreased, we have come to realize the benefit of this approach, which will likely be an integral part of the health care system going forward.
However, the reality is that many elements of health care cannot be provided in a virtual format. At the Program in Women’s Oncology at Women and Infants Hospital, we have seen the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to delays in cancer prevention, screening and diagnosis for the population of patients at risk for breast and gynecologic cancer in the southeastern New England population that we serve.
Delays in diagnosis not only raise the anxiety for patients suffering from symptoms, it also may potentially lead to a worse outcome. These risks likely outweigh those caused by the pandemic, especially in our health care facilities that are making outstanding efforts to reduce the risk of viral infection. If you recognize symptoms of concern, such as a breast lump, or abnormal bleeding, please do not delay seeking medical attention due to the ongoing pandemic.
Medicine has made great strides in reducing cancer related mortality through screening programs. Mammography to reduce breast cancer risk and pap smears to reduce cervix cancer risk are just two examples. These efforts need to be continued and your health care providers are available to offer these services.
Cancer prevention comes in many forms, the majority of which can be addressed without a visit to a health care facility. Smoking cessation, changes in diet and increases in activity levels are just some of examples. An excellent resource for patients is the American Cancer Society website, www.cancer.org, under the “Stay Healthy” tab. We can also reduce the risk of cervix cancer in our population with adherence to HPV vaccination guidelines. In the latest data available from the CDC, Rhode Island is the highest ranking state in the nation in providing our young people with this intervention.
We must not forget that there are other significant risks to our collective health aside from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to remember to follow the cancer screening, prevention and diagnosis recommendations made by our health care providers, medical societies and governmental guidelines in order to reduce the risks that cancer pose to us and to stay as healthy as possible.
Paul A. DiSilvestro, MD Director of the Program in Women’s Oncology and the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Women & Infants Hospital