Cancer

Cancer rates dropped during the recession — and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

The state of the economy is not the only factor that can explain the drop in cancer diagnoses during the recession.

Cancer rates dropped during the recession — and it's not necessarily a good thing.
Cancer rates dropped during the recession — and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

As the country plunged into recession between 2008 and 2012, something unexpected happened: An earlier small decline in the number of new cancer cases became a much bigger one.

The authors of a study published last month by the Cancer Prevention Institute of California believe they have a plausible explanation for the trend: People who lost their incomes or health insurance during that time were less likely to get routine screenings or visit the doctor.

The researchers’ analysis of data from the California Cancer Registry, published in the journal Cancer Causes & Control, shows that in the state’s 30 largest counties, cancer diagnosis rates during the recession and subsequent recovery dropped by 3.3 percent annually for males and 1.4 percent for females — much faster than the average decline of 0.7 percent for males and 0.5 percent for females documented over the previous decade.

A 2015 analysis in the Journal of Cancer covering the years from 1973 to 2008 found that the incidence and treatment of cancer in the United States dropped during recessions and with increased unemployment rates. During such periods, patients were perhaps more likely to forgo tests for early detection or ignore symptoms due to financial consideration, the researchers suggested.

The recent study from California buttresses that earlier finding. The largest drops were seen in the rates for prostate, lung and colorectal cancers. The declining rates of most cancers were especially noteworthy given the growing population of aging Baby Boomers, since cancer is more common later in life.

If people did delay getting screened for early-stage cancers during the recession, “might we then start seeing an uptick of late-stage cancers?” wondered Scarlett Lin Gomez, the study’s lead author and a researcher with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Dr. Jennifer Hastings, who was not involved with the study, expects that to be the case. She is director of the transgender health care program for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, which serves 29 counties in California and 13 in Nevada. The clinics screen for breast, cervical and colon cancer.

Hastings said doctors at her clinics started seeing more patients with advanced cancers and other serious illnesses starting in 2014, as…