Sharpless:10,000 Excess Breast, Colorectal Cancers Deaths This Decade From Deferred Care Related to COVID-19

June 20, 2020

The "conservative estimate" assumes that disruption of services ends in six months.

No one knows for sure, of course. But modelers are beginning to come up with estimates about what the consequences might be of delayed cancer diagnosis and care because of COVID-19.

In an editorial in Science on Friday, NCI Director Norman "Ned" Sharpless referred to models that show more than 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal over the next decade. That works out to be about a 1% increase; roughly a million Americans are expected to die from the two diseases over the next ten years. The number of excess deaths per year will peak in the next year or two, Sharpless wrote.

Sharpless described his numbers as “conservative” because they do not take take into account other cancers, although breat and colorectal cancer are common cancers and account for about a sixth of the cancer deaths in this country. They also assume that the disruption in care that started in March ends completely after six months, he said.

One factor that may offset rising cancer mortality is "competing mortality": Some of the people who might have died from cancer have died from COVID-19 instead. 

During his presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual eeting in late May, Sharpless predicted that “all this deferred care is going to have costs for patients with cancer."

"What we don’t know yet is the scale of these bad outcomes," Sharpless said. He mentioned the overall downward trend in U.S. cancer mortality since the 1990s and expressed concern that the COVID-19 and the related interruption in cancer cancer might interrupt the decline.