New report joins calls from Roche, AstraZeneca to boost cancer screening as rates still down 2 years into pandemic

Stars like Patti Labelle, Jamie Foxx and rapper Chuck D lent their voices to pharma-backed PSAs last year to keep cancer screenings top of mind while the world was focused on that other big “C” disease.

AstraZeneca’s “New Normal Same Cancer” campaign warned that cancer wouldn’t wait for things to get back to normal.

And Roche's Genentech teamed with the American Cancer Society on a “Return to Screening'' initiative, aimed, like the others, at reversing the steep drop in routine cancer checkups in the pandemic’s early days.

But although people are slowly putting mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies and other routine medical appointments back on their calendars, it’s not time to let up on the pro-screening messaging just yet, the latest data from Epic Research suggest.

Screening rates for breast, cervical and colon cancers are still slightly behind where they were before the pandemic, the data show. And the flood of “catch-up” screenings that researchers and some public health officials predicted has yet to materialize, thanks in part to the surge of the omicron variant.

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“Rather than people sort of scrambling to catch up, it has been a much longer period where screening has mostly returned, but it’s still a little bit below what we would expect,” said Christopher Mast, M.D., a lead clinician on the study.

The research arm of the electronic medical records giant has been tracking cancer screening rates since May 2020. At that time, it found a staggering 94% drop in breast and cervical cancer screenings and 86% drop in colon cancer screenings.

Pharma responded with a flood of cancer screening awareness efforts in 2021 such as the Community Oncologist Alliance’s “Time to Screen'' campaign, backed by Bristol Myers Squibb, Roche’s Genentech and 11 other pharma companies, featuring the aforementioned Patti Labelle PSA.

While cancer screenings have mostly bounced back from those early depths, there’s still lost ground to make up, the data show.

Cervical cancer screenings lag furthest behind, with rates down 10% from the “historical baseline,” which Epic defines as the weekly average in the three years before the pandemic. Breast cancer and colon cancer screenings are also below the baseline, down 2.7% and 3.4%, respectively.

By Epic’s calculations, that translates into roughly 68,000 missed breast cancer screenings, 27,000 missed colon cancer screenings and 9,000 missed cervical cancer screenings between January and October of 2021.

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For pharma companies that make cancer drugs, that means fewer new patients starting treatment, of course, but from a public health standpoint, it also means more cancers will be found at a later stage, making them harder to treat and deadlier.

Epic’s week-by-week data suggest awareness efforts can make a difference, however. Mast said breast cancer screening rates tend to spike in October and November, during and immediately following Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“People hear the message and they work it into their routine,” he theorized.
He suggested continued messaging from trusted individuals and organizations—focusing on why screenings are important and how they can be done safely during a pandemic—may help close the remaining gap.

“Sometimes it doesn’t take much, just a little reminder to get you over the hump and get that cancer screening scheduled,” he said.