The Foothills Hospital in Boulder on Nov. 18, 2021. The hospital is seeing a rise in the number of breast cancer patients. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

In early November, when Covid-19 patients were once again filling Boulder County’s hospitals, Jackie Attlesey-Pries, the chief nursing officer at Boulder Community Health, saw another disease on the rise. 

“It looks like we’re going to see the highest number of breast cancer patients that we’ve seen at BCH over the years,” Attlesey-Pries told the Boulder Reporting Lab. 

Attlesey-Pries said it’s not fully clear yet why more patients are coming in with breast cancer. She and others believe postponement of screening is a likely cause.

“We’ve now caught up. And maybe that’s why we are seeing it,” she said.

Similarly, at the Longmont United Hospital, the number of breast cancer patients increased, to 443 so far this year, compared to 248 in 2019, according to Meredith Ritchie, a spokesperson for Centura Health.

“We are examining the repercussions of delays in preventative care and strongly reinforcing to patients that routine exams and screenings are safe even with COVID-19 still looming,” Ritchie said in an email to the Boulder Reporting Lab.

The recent rise in the number of breast cancer patients due to delays in cancer screenings is yet another warning of the pandemic’s far-reaching ripple effects on public health beyond Covid-19. 

“It’s certainly a very unfortunate outcome of the pandemic,” said Sami Diab, an oncologist with the Mountain Blue Cancer Care Center at the Swedish Medical Center in Englewood. 

“We’re seeing more advanced cancer and cancer that would have had a much better outcome if it wasn’t for a delayed diagnosis,” Diab told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “It’s really frustrating to see something that we can prevent in terms of delayed diagnosis, which really means not just worse outcome, but also more aggressive treatment.” 

The number of mammographies dropped nearly 80% in the first few months of the pandemic, when compared to the same months in 2019,  according to a study of Mass General Brigham patients published by JAMA Oncology in April.

Some people may have skipped appointments out of fear of getting sick. In other cases, it was difficult to get one. On March 23, 2020, Gov. Jared Polis banned providers from performing voluntary or elective procedures in order to free up gloves, masks and beds for hospitals. The executive order did not define cancer screenings as an elective procedure. But even the American Cancer Society recommended postponing screenings to conserve supplies. 

In addition to delayed screenings, research indicates treatment was delayed, too. According to a September 2021 study by the Colorado Health Institute, visits for patients with a diagnosis of breast cancer diagnosis dropped 28% last year compared to the same time period in 2019. 

Meanwhile, the need for breast cancer treatment comes while Boulder County’s hospitals are still battling Covid-19. 

Nurses are in short supply. And according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of patients hospitalized with the disease this month is still near record levels. 

Diab with Mountain Blue Cancer Care Center said patients are at least returning to mammography centers. And systems are in place to notify people when they miss a screening, he said.

But the effects of delayed screenings may not be fully realized for years to come. The National Cancer Institute estimates the pandemic will cause an additional 10,000 breast and colorectal cancer deaths across the country in the next decade. 

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.