The pandemic is impacting continuity of care for cancer survivors — especially women

November 20, 2020

Compared with the average adult, cancer survivors are more routinely practicing preventive behaviors to avoid COVID-19 infection — these measures include social distancing and staying away from crowded areas. However, they are also reporting symptoms that could either be related to the ongoing pandemic or to their cancer treatment, such as muscle and body aches, sore throat, and nausea or vomiting.

These findings come from the COVID-19 Impact Survey, a study of more than 10,000 adults across the United States that took place between late April and early June of 2020.

The survey revealed that, during the pandemic, cancer survivors are more likely than the average adult to cancel a doctor’s appointment — but less likely to cancel other activities such as work and school-related events. Female cancer survivors were the most likely to cancel a doctor’s appointment, often reporting that their plans had been affected by school and daycare closures.

The proportion of cancer patients who canceled doctor’s appointments due to COVID-19 rose from April to May. By early June, 34% had canceled at least one appointment.

Younger adults (18-29 years old), women and cancer survivors with at least one other co-morbid condition are more likely to cancel their doctor’s appointments. Black cancer survivors are less likely to cancel a doctor’s appointment, however, compared to white cancer survivors.

Dr. Jessica Islam

Dr. Jessica Islam

Jessica Y. Islam, PhD, the lead author of the study, is a 2019 alumna of the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health and a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with both the School’s Department of Epidemiology and UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

She initially shared the survey findings July 22 at the “COVID-19 and Cancer” virtual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR); the results also were published online October 26 by the AACR journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

“Women, specifically, who are living with cancer are more likely to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Islam said in her remarks at the virtual meeting. “This is especially true if they have to consider things like child care and school closures, which may affect their plans and their ability to attend their doctor’s appointments.”

These cancellations are concerning, she added, and may represent misinterpretation of advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends avoiding going to the hospital or clinic for nonessential visits.

“Continuity of care is essential for cancer survivors,” Islam emphasized. “Health care providers should work to improve communication with their patients and help them determine which appointments are necessary and which can be postponed.”

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at

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