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Health & Medicine

Free Cancer Screenings Fight Growing Problem during COVID Crisis of Ignoring Other Health Issues

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James Corrigan/WAER News
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Like millions of Americans, Michael Schapely has been apprehensive about leaving his home during the pandemic. As a smoker for forty years, the 67-year-old knows that he is at a higher risk of suffering serious symptoms if he were to contract COVID-19.

“It's not the time of the world to meet a lot of strangers. I was using a mask and gloves on long before it was recommended. I try to stay away from even my own family members as much as possible.”

As a former smoker, however, Schapely finds himself at greater risk for something else: Lung cancer.

As Hematology-Oncology Associates Thoracic Nurse Navigator Allyson Remon puts it, the pandemic has delayed many voluntary medical treatments, including many critical cancer screenings.

“It caused them to not occur. And not just lung cancer screenings, but all sorts of preventive screenings. And so unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, those things got put on the backburner, which led to people getting diagnosed later than they should have. And then outcomes are not as good as they could have been.”

Hematology-Oncology Associates of Central New York attempted to remedy the problem Saturday by offering 60 people free lung cancer screenings at three locations in Onondaga County. The screenings were offered to high-risk individuals who have a history of smoking and/or a family history of cancer.

Dr. Aref Agheli, among the doctors overseeing the screenings at the HOACNY clinic in East Syracuse, says the difference between getting screened earlier as opposed to later is stark.

“Approximately 240,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year in the United States. A third of them are diagnosed at a much advanced stage, which is the metastatic stage. And unfortunately, more than half of them will die within the first year. Now, if you are diagnosed with lung cancer in the early stage, such as stage one, the possibility of surviving up to five years increases to 80%.”

CANCER, OTHER SCREENINGS DROP DURING PANDEMIC

A study by the Community Oncology Alliance found billing for cancer screenings and other cancer care, one indication of whether people are seeking treatment, was off considerably as concerns over the cornavirus grew.

"The study, conducted for the non-profit Community Oncology Alliance (COA) by Avalere Health, examined the billing frequencies from March-July 2020 for common cancer procedures, including screenings, infusion therapies such as chemotherapy, surgeries, and radiation therapy. It found significant reductions in breast (-85%), colon (-75%), prostate (-74%), and lung cancer (-56%) screenings at the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020, compared with April 2019," said a story in the journal JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics.  

Remon hopes free screening events such as this can continue beyond the pandemic. She says the cost for the screenings may be high, but the possibility of saving lives makes it worthwhile.

“I would say because what we're giving and what we could prevent, and the fact that we can help people have long happy lives, there's no price tag for that.”

One of those lives could prove to be Michael Schapely’s, who had never been scanned for lung cancer before learning of HOACNY’s event. He says that anyone who thinks they are at risk should not wait to be screened.

“If you get an opportunity, get it done. It was so simple, it's comical. It really didn't take up a lot of my time and it was well worth it.”