A healthcare worker collects swab sample of a resident in Mumbai. (HT Photo)
A healthcare worker collects swab sample of a resident in Mumbai. (HT Photo)

Covid-19 check-ups helping in early diagnosis of cancer

Compulsory CT scan for Covid-19 patients helps city doctors detect early-stage cancers, allowing for timely treatments.
By Rupsa Chakraborty, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JAN 18, 2021 02:03 AM IST

As Mumbai records a spike of Covid-19 infections, the pandemic seems to have given an unexpected advantage to those diagnosed with the infection: many have reported being diagnosed with cancer at an early stage during Covid-19 check up, thus allowing them to get treated sooner than they might have otherwise. 

Dr Avneendra Prasad, 66, contracted Covid-19 in August. While undergoing CT scan, doctors observed a lump in his chest. In the beginning, doctors believed it to be a reaction of the virus and administered antibiotics. But when the size of the lump didn’t subside, they performed a biopsy which confirmed it as a malignant tumour. On October 30, he underwent surgery at the Asian Cancer Institute (ACI). 

Soon after the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in March last year, a chest CT scan was made mandatory for all symptomatic Covid-19 patients; all symptomatic patients admitted to a hospital or Covid Care Centre had to undergo one.

“At present, I am on chemotherapy. But I am thankful that I contracted Covid-19 and got diagnosed at an early stage, or else my chances of survival would have been very low,” Prasad, a resident of Powai, said. 

According to Mumbai Cancer Registry, on an average, Mumbai records around 14,000 cases of cancer every year. And while there is no data available for how many were diagnosed early due to CT scans, city doctors whom HT spoke to said the numbers were sizeable.

“Most cancers get detected at a late stage where the chances of recovery reduce. But with this coincidental diagnosis, these patients are getting the opportunity to start their treatment at the earliest,” said Dr Rajat Bhargava, head of the radiology department, Fortis Hospital, Mulund. 

“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we are diagnosing five to 10 Covid-19 patients with cancer. The most common among them are breast cancers. We have also caught lung, kidney and blood cancer among Covid-19 patients,” said Dr Neemish Kamat, senior consultant, radiology department, Nanavati Hospital.

A CT scan uses X-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of a body. Instead of taking one or two images like a regular X-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures and a computer then combines them to show a slice of the part of the body. It is considered more effective than the routine X-rays. 

Covid-19 patients are being diagnosed with undetected cancer of the lungs, which is tricky because the symptoms are difficult to separate from that of the pandemic.

“Some symptoms of Covid-19 resemble lung malignancies. So, it is quite complicated to identify cancer in an infected person. The rule of compulsory CT scan has proved to be a boon for such patients,” said Dr Suhas Vilasrao Aagre, medical and hemato-oncologist at ACI who treated Prasad.

Other types of cancers have also been caught during Covid-19 treatment: breast, bone and kidney, among other types.

A 47-year-old based in Kurla was completely unaware of the spread of the cancer in his kidney and lungs, till he was diagnosed with Covid-19 in July. During a chest CT scan, doctors at Global Hospital, Parel, found a malignant tumour in the middle of his lungs and further discovered that he had kidney cancer.

“When we ran his chest CT scan, we found the tumour. Then to check if the cancer has spread further, we found out that his kidney had also turned cancerous. Now, the patient is under immunotherapy. It was a completely coincidental diagnosis which left the patient shocked,” said his treating doctor, Dr Pradeep Rao, director, urology and renal transplant, Global Hospital, Parel.

Due to coincidental diagnosis of cancer at an early stage, many patients are getting a new lease of life. “This coincidental cancer detection during Covid-19 treatment highlights the need to undergo regular health checkups, especially those with smoking habits or with a family history of cancer,” Rao said. 

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