Cancer death risk rises about 10% for every month of delayed care, study finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on cancer screenings and treatments, and researchers are now warning that delaying cancer treatment by just one month can lead to a 6 percent to 13 percent higher death risk, according to a study published Nov. 4 in The BMJ

Researchers from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, analyzed 34 studies with data on surgical interventions, systemic therapy and radiotherapy for bladder, breast, colon, rectum, lung, cervix and head and neck cancer, which were meant to represent 44 percent of all global incident cancers. The 34 studies included 17 types of conditions that needed treatment and involved over 1.2 million patients between January 2000 and April 2020. Delays were measured from time of diagnosis to first treatment, or the first treatment completion to the start of the next. 

Delays in treatment led to increased mortality rates in 13 out of the 17 conditions analyzed, and led to worse outcomes across all three treatment approaches — surgical, systemic therapy and radiotherapy. 

One result indicated that the death risk increased by 17 percent for an eight-week delay in breast cancer surgery, rising to 26 percent for a 12-week delay. Researchers also found a 12-week delay in surgery for all breast cancer patients for a year would lead to 6,100 excess deaths in the U.S., 1,400 in the U.K., 700 in Canada and 500 in Australia. These results assume surgery is the first treatment in 83 percent of patients and a 12 percent mortality without delay. 

“In light of these results, policies focused on minimising system level delays in cancer treatment initiation could improve population level survival outcomes,” Timothy Hanna, MD, PhD, lead researcher and professor at Queen’s University oncology department, said in a news release. 

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