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Ending cancer as we know it has been the main focus in recent research efforts like the Cancer Moonshot. Seeing rates of incidence decrease should be a positive sign, coinciding with new treatments and an increase in preventive measures like cancer screenings. It could even signal a decline in risky behavior, like smoking or other environmental factors.
However, in recent years, a rapid change in cancer rates has left researchers concerned. As the economy struggled between 2008 – 2012, so did our attitude towards our health, a recent study found. Cancer rates changed dramatically, but not because we were better at preventing cancer. Instead, with high unemployment rates and a lack of health insurance, many people were unable to afford expensive diagnostic tests and treatments. Given the long latency period of mesothelioma, we could see the consequences of avoiding the doctor more and more in the years ahead.
Economic Struggles Impact Cancer Diagnosis
In the study, which was conducted by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, researchers found that between 2008 and 2012, cancer rates trended downward significantly, with a 3.3% drop in cancer incidence for males and a 1.4% decrease for females. Previously, there had been a much smaller decline, averaging about 0.5% among females and 0.7% among males each year.
Another study in the Journal of Cancer looked at data spanning from 1973 – 2008 and found that when unemployment rates increased, there was a decrease in incidence and treatment of cancers. Together, these studies indicate that the lower cancer incidence rates might be due more to the fact that people were delaying doctors’ visits, rather than a decrease in people actually developing the disease.
Unfortunately, as people become more unable to pay for their daily needs, one of the first things to go is preventative health, which may be seen by many people as unnecessary or having little risk. Researchers believe during these economically difficult times from 2008 – 2012, many individuals started to forgo preventive measures, and they may have even ignored symptoms they otherwise might have brought to their doctor’s attention under better financial circumstances.
Sadly, skipping the doctor to save money isn’t really a new practice or all that uncommon. People with and without insurance often forgo doctor’s visits because of high costs. Though the long-term trend is generally decreasing according to a 2015 survey, it is still worrisome that many people are skipping preventive visits in the sheer hope that they will not develop a deadly disease like mesothelioma.
In addition to preventive measures, patients might also be skipping their treatments. Even with insurance, many people face paying high deductibles and don’t have the funds to cover any medical bills. Over the last several years, cancer treatment costs have risen significantly, making it more difficult for an average-income family to afford life-saving therapy even when they have insurance.
Unfortunately, there are no immediate solutions for lowering the cost of treatment. In some cases, patients may be able to seek financial assistance to help lessen the burden.
The Importance of Early Diagnosis
Both studies noted that decreased interest in preventive measures during difficult economic times could greatly delay diagnosis of cancer. With the varying latency periods associated with different cancers, this change in incidence might mean an increase in late-stage cancer cases in many years to come.
In the case of mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure, early diagnosis is crucial. Symptoms first start to show after a long latency period of 20 – 50 years, and mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed for other conditions, such as pneumonia or the flu. These factors can put off diagnosis for months, which would be further hindered by delaying doctor appointments.
Ignoring symptoms and delaying diagnosis can also hinder treatment options. If symptoms are ignored until they get worse, the patient could likely face a more advanced cancer diagnosis. In the case of mesothelioma, people diagnosed at Stage 1 have more options, and therefore a lot better prognosis, than those who are diagnosed at Stage 4. Once the cancer starts to spread, the ability to remove tumors through surgery is greatly diminished.
Preventive measures like cancer screenings can also prove essential for an early diagnosis. Screenings look for cancer before a patient exhibits any symptoms, meaning it can be found at an early stage when treatment is most effective. Regular screenings for some types of cancer are recommended based on age, family history, and other factors. These screenings can truly save lives.
Our Health Matters
Early detection is key for any cancer diagnosis. Even in financially hard times, it’s important to take a proactive approach to our health. Ignoring symptoms or skipping appointments might save money initially, but will cause a greater burden in the long run.
While we’d like to see cancer rates decline, it’s only good news if it occurs through better prevention and early detection.