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Delaying cancer treatment increases risk of death by 10 percent each month, study finds

Researchers hope that these findings create changes within the medical system

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A new study conducted by researchers from Queen’s University has found that delays in cancer treatment can be incredibly detrimental to patients’ health outcomes. According to their findings, the risk of death can increase by roughly 10 percent for each month that cancer treatment is stalled. 

“A four-week delay in treatment is associated with an increase in mortality across all common forms of cancer treatment, with longer delays being increasingly detrimental,” said researcher Timothy Hanna.

Increasing risk of death

To better understand why delays in cancer treatment exist, and what risk it poses to patients’ health, the researchers analyzed 34 studies that included data on over 1.2 million patients. The study focused on the most common types of the disease, which included cancers of the lung, colon, head, breast, rectum, neck, cervix, and bladder. Additionally, the researchers looked at three treatment plans: chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that delaying cancer treatment of any kind can increase patients’ risk of death, and the longer treatment is delayed, the more the risk of mortality increases. 

For example, delaying breast cancer surgery eight weeks was associated with a 17 percent increased risk of death; however, pushing that surgery back 12 weeks increased the risk of death by more than 25 percent. 

Importance of screenings and early detection

These findings are concerning for several reasons. Early detection is extremely important for treating many forms of cancer because patients have the best outcomes when the condition is addressed as quickly as possible. However, the researchers explained that the nature of health care systems often make it difficult for cancer patients to start treatments as quickly as they’d like. 

They also found that with the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals were forced to rearrange their surgery schedules and cancel or push back other types of treatments -- including cancer treatments. These findings make it clear that these delays put cancer patients at risk, and timing is really of the essence when it comes to having the best possible health outcomes. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that these findings lead to policy changes that benefit cancer patients and prioritize their health and wellness. 

“In light of these results, policies focused on minimizing system level delays in cancer treatment initiation could improve population level survival outcomes,” Hanna said. 

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