Cancer doesn’t know who you are. COVID-19 doesn’t, either. But the systemic inequality of healthcare in the US has meant that both diseases have had an outsized impact on minority communities.
We’ve been following for months now how pandemic-related delays and made it more difficult for patients to access cancer screenings and treatment. Just as minorities have faced disproportionate rates of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, they’re experiencing higher rates of a cancer diagnosis with more of those diagnoses reportedly in the advanced stage. Black people had lower survival rates for most types of cancer compared to white patients before the pandemic, but those inequalities have been amplified during the past year and a half.
Researchers trying to estimate the impact of millions of missed cancer screenings have put the number of additional cancer deaths in the tens or even hundreds of thousands over the next several years.
One of the biggest challenges to getting patients back in for screenings has been just how similar both cancer and COVID-19 risk factors tend to be. The same high-risk conditions that forced millions of Americans to take extra precautions during the pandemic, such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, also elevate the risk of developing cancer.
There are other risk factors, too, but those are man-made. One of the most telling risk factors for both cancer patients and COVID-19 patients is money. The lack of health insurance is one of the strongest indicators in both seeking care for COVID-19 symptoms and getting regular cancer screenings or general wellness appointments. The financial burden of accessing care is a barrier that is deadly, but also avoidable.
The world should be taking note. One of the many, many lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic should be that not everyone can come to the doctor’s office for any number of reasons. Healthcare providers, legislators, and our society all need to realize that leaving millions of low-income individuals and families hurts all of us and that we need to design new systems to bring care to them. Elements of COVID-19 healthcare like telehealth and mobile specimen collection for blood tests should be a fixture of expanding who can get medical support.
Cancer is a problem that will outlast COVID-19, but we can invest resources to lower its impact and emphasis cancer prevention in all communities, especially in those where prevention will offer the most benefit.