As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, doctors are again urging people to seek medical attention if they have nagging concerns about their health.

The reluctance to see a doctor makes it more difficult for the early detection of certain types of cancers.

"So many cancers do better if they’re diagnosed early,” says Dr. Sandeep Sehdev, medical oncologist with the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre. "Screening is important, because it picks up cancer at an earlier stage; with breast cancer, we’ve known for years that the earlier you pick it up, the better the cure rate - and, the lesser the intensity of therapy we have to pursue."

Dr. Sehdev says that early detection has been an issue during the pandemic.

"Because of COVID, a lot of the screening programs had been shut down last year; and, even today - patients are often frightened to go to a medical facility for testing."

Dr. Sehdev says that medical facilities have rigid protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We certainly can understand their anxiety, but it seems to have had a big impact on the types of cancers that we’re seeing, the earliness of the diagnosis; and, sometimes the intensity of therapy the patients require.”

If patients hesitate to seek attention, then early detection of certain types of cancers isn’t possible.

"It’s a positive that less people are being diagnosed, but unfortunately what this means is that there are more and more people going about their daily lives - unaware that they may be in the early stages of cancer," says Conrad Eder of the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.

Fortunately though, Eder says more patients are starting to see their family doctors, compared to the first wave of the pandemic.

“How many people had interacted with their general practitioner or specialist, we’ve seen that number go up from 45 percent in the first wave, to 64 percent in the second wave; this is very positive,” said Eder .

"We do not want to end up in a situation where we have an irreversible disease process; your physician is your best advocate," says Dr. Alan Drummond, who is a family and emergency physician in Perth, Ont.

Dr. Drummond says personally, he does not know of any patients in his practice who are going to have a worse outcome.

"In retrospect, when this is behind us, and we look at how the health system responded or adapted, there will be lots of studies that show how that in fact - we did let some people down."

Thursday is World Cancer Day.

Data from Metrika on COVID-19 and Canadian oncology practices finds oncologists estimate that the number of newly diagnosed cancer patients seen in a three-month period (as of December 2020) is down 16 per cent compared to 2018.

It's estimated that new diagnoses of bladder cancer and ovarian cancer are down by more than 25 per cent.