(TL/DR[ii]: Don’t let fear of COVID stop you from getting routine care and screenings.)
I was a little surprised to see news of TWO cancer studies in my feed on the same day. The one from USA Today began with an upbeat headline “3.5 million cancer deaths prevented”[iii] while the other one from ABC News lamented “Nearly 2 million cases of cancer likely to be diagnosed”[iv] I decided to start with the good news, which turned out to come from an annual report[v] by the American Cancer Society. They point out that, due to a variety of factors like reduced smoking and better diagnostic screenings, millions of unnecessary deaths have been prevented. On a sidenote, I like to point out that it’s not ONLY that those deaths were prevented, but by detecting the cancers early, treatments were more efficient, and suffering was reduced for many millions more.
So, in the first article, by USA Today, they did indeed start with the good news, that millions of unnecessary deaths had been avoided. Then, within the first 26 words, they began breaking the bad news. Starting with a topic I’ve written about before, the current pandemic is preventing people from getting routine screenings (that could save their lives and greatly reduce their suffering.)
It wasn’t long, 7 sentences to be precise, before the story devolved into vague lamentations about inequities. Instead of trumpeting the main points, which should be “STOP SMOKING/VAPING” and “GET SCREENED FOR CANCER”, they spent time on “long standing inequalities in wealth”, despite the fact that under the ACA[vi] preventative cancer screenings are FREE. And coverage under the ACA is provided at little to NO cost to people based upon their income. So, is it mainly “inequality” that’s holding people back? Or maybe confusing headlines and stories that don’t, forcefully, explain the value of early detection?
It’s never too late to stop making it worse
You’ll also hear a variation of that saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” But the problem with that version (when it comes to cancer screening) is most people don’t recognize that they are in “a hole” in the first place. And honestly, since many cancers and other life-threatening conditions “come on slowly” it may not be apparent that anything is wrong at all, until it’s too late…
Despite starting on a slightly more optimistic note, the article didn’t waste ANY time telling people to fight back against the urge to stay away from doctors/hospitals and labs. They made it into a “they problem” by saying “Race and place is the problem.” Really? How does that help? Should we tell people “Hey, don’t bother getting a colonoscopy, you need to move away from Mississippi!” Yeah, that’ll fix it. Pre-pandemic, I used to travel to Mississippi nearly every other month. I can tell you that they HAVE highly qualified doctors and top-notch hospitals. What they need more of is #healthliteracy, meaning more understanding of what care/screenings are necessary and how to pay for it (or get help paying for it.)
Maybe the other cancer study will be more insightful…
As you have already guessed, there really was ONLY ONE cancer study, it just received wildly different reporting.
The ABC News story spent more time on relaying the facts from the ACS study. Things like how obesity increases your cancer risk (but only after pointing out that women face a rising risk for cancer due to having FEWER babies and waiting until later in life to have them.)
OK, gotta pause here.
If you’re going to drop a bomb on women and say (at least part of) their increasing cancer risk is their own fault for not getting pregnant early/often enough, that probably needs to be its own story.
At least the ABC article did include this paragraph:
Health experts have suggested that people missing cancer screenings and doctor’s appointments due to the COVID-19 pandemic may cause cancer rates to rise in the coming years.
Look, I get it, both stories did include highlights from the original scientific paper and tried to pick out what they felt was the most important parts. But we’re swamped with facts every day. What people need is help sorting out the “gee, that’s interesting” from the “this can save you misery, money and maybe an early death” kind of facts.
Let me put that differently and see if you get my point:
If you say “Two million cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year and your chance of dying is worse if you live in Mississippi.” most people will shrug and say “Whew, I dodged a bullet, I don’t live there!” Or, at best, “That’s not right, I hope somebody looks into that, but I don’t see how having a camera put up my bottom will help them.”
Compare that with: “Look, I know your local hospital is swamped with unvaccinated patients fighting for their lives, but cancer screenings are normally done OUTPATIENT (that means you don’t have to be admitted to a hospital to get tested). Not only does early detection give you the best chance for survival it HELPS DOCTORS and the hospitals they work with. How? Because when cancer specialists aren’t performing/reading mammograms or colonoscopies it’s not like they are treating COVID. One industry group found that 97% of medical practices have been hurt[vii] by the pandemic. Sure, business in the ICU is booming (sad but true) but since so many people have been delaying (or forced to delay) treatments and screenings, those parts of the healthcare system are at risk of going out of business.
I’m proud that you made it this far (assuming you did), but let me close with the same “TL/DR” summary I started with.
Don’t let fear of COVID stop you from getting routine care and screenings.
[i] NSF.gov, “Was the dress gold and white or blue and black?
“, 6/26/2015, https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=135527
[ii] TL/DR is short for “this article is TOO LONG and I DIDN’T have time/inclination to READ it. Apologies. I thought this topic would make for a nice, short blog post, but explaining “why” the type of coverage mattered, it made it MUCH longer and if I can only grab your attention for two seconds, I want to try and use those seconds to save your life.
[iii] USA Today, “3.5 million cancer deaths prevented in recent decades, but disparities are ‘alarming,’ report says”, 1/13/2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2022/01/12/cancer-report-millions-deaths-averted-racial-disparities-persist/9188548002/
[iv] ABC News, “Nearly 2 million cases of cancer likely to be diagnosed in 2022: Report”, 1/13/2022, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/million-cases-cancer-diagnosed-2022-report/story?id=82204749
[v] CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, “Cancer statistics, 2022”, 1/12/2022, https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21708
[vi] ACA is short for the “Affordable Care Act” of 2010. Often, this law is called “Obama Care” after the President who signed it into law.
[vii] JAMA Network, “COVID-19’s Crushing Effects on Medical Practices, Some of Which Might Not Survive”, 6/18/2020, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2767633