The initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis of new cancers at a large pathology laboratory in the public health sector, Western Cape Province, South Africa

Van Wyk, A. C. ; De Jager, L. J. ; Razack, R. ; Van Wyk, S. S. ; Kleinhans, W. ; Simonds, H. M. ; Schubert, P. T. (2021)

CITATION: Van Wyk, A. C., et al. 2021. The initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis of new cancers at a large pathology laboratory in the public health sector, Western Cape Province, South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 111(6):570-574, doi:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v111i6.15580.

Publication of this article was funded by the Stellenbosch University Open Access Fund

Article

Background. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted cancer diagnostic services. A decline in the number of new cancers being diagnosed over a relatively short term implies a delay in diagnosis and subsequent treatment. This delay is expected to have a negative effect on cancerrelated morbidity and mortality. The impact of the pandemic on the number of new cancer diagnoses in our setting is unknown. Objectives. To assess the impact of COVID-19 on the number of new cancers diagnosed at our institution in the first 3 months following the implementation of lockdown restrictions, by focusing on common non-cutaneous cancers. Methods. A retrospective laboratory-based audit was performed at a large anatomical pathology laboratory in Western Cape Province, South Africa. The numbers of new diagnoses for six common cancers (breast, prostate, cervix, large bowel, oesophagus and stomach) from 1 April 2020 to 30 June 2020 were compared with the corresponding period in 2019. Results. Histopathological diagnoses for the six cancers combined decreased by 193 (–36.3%), from 532 new cases in the 2019 study period to 339 in the corresponding period in 2020. Substantial declines were seen for prostate (–58.2%), oesophageal (–44.1%), breast (–32.9%), gastric (–32.6%) and colorectal cancer (–29.2%). The smallest decline was seen in cervical cancer (–7%). New breast cancers diagnosed by cytopathology declined by 61.1%. Conclusions. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated response resulted in a substantial decline in the number of new cancer diagnoses, implying a delay in diagnosis. Cancer-related morbidity and mortality is expected to rise as a result, with the greatest increase in mortality expected from breast and colorectal cancer.

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