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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574


VAN WYK, A C et al. The initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis of new cancers at a large pathology laboratory in the public health sector, Western Cape Province, South Africa. SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. [online]. 2021, vol.111, n.6, pp.570-574. ISSN 2078-5135.

BACKGROUND. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted cancer diagnostic services. A decline in the number of new cancers being diagnosed over a relatively short term implies a delay in diagnosis and subsequent treatment. This delay is expected to have a negative effect on cancer-related morbidity and mortality. The impact of the pandemic on the number of new cancer diagnoses in our setting is unknown. OBJECTIVES. To assess the impact of COVID-19 on the number of new cancers diagnosed at our institution in the first 3 months following the implementation of lockdown restrictions, by focusing on common non-cutaneous cancers. METHODS. A retrospective laboratory-based audit was performed at a large anatomical pathology laboratory in Western Cape Province, South Africa. The numbers of new diagnoses for six common cancers (breast, prostate, cervix, large bowel, oesophagus and stomach) from 1 April 2020 to 30 June 2020 were compared with the corresponding period in 2019. RESULTS. Histopathological diagnoses for the six cancers combined decreased by 192 (-36.2%), from 531 new cases in the 2019 study period to 339 in the corresponding period in 2020. Substantial declines were seen for prostate (-58.2%), oesophageal (-44.1%), breast (-32.9%), gastric (-32.6%) and colorectal cancer (-29.2%). The smallest decline was seen in cervical cancer (-7%). New breast cancers diagnosed by cytopathology declined by 61.1%. CONCLUSIONS. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated response resulted in a substantial decline in the number of new cancer diagnoses, implying a delay in diagnosis. Cancer-related morbidity and mortality is expected to rise as a result, with the greatest increase in mortality expected from breast and colorectal cancer.

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