VANCOUVER -- Rates of cancer screening and new diagnoses in BC both took a hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the numbers have been rising again, there are still concerns about what could be missed.

In the initial stage of the pandemic last year, BC Cancer saw about a 20 per cent decrease in new diagnoses.

The numbers have been climbing since then, but still have not surpassed pre-COVID levels, leading to concerns about potentially catching cancers later when they are more advanced.

Radiologist Dr. Colin Mar with BC Cancer’s breast screening program told CTV News early detection allows for more treatment options, and the chance for a better outcome.

“Unfortunately, we know statistically that those cancers are still occurring in our population, be they breast cancer or other types,” Mar said. “Of course, we don't want to see new diagnoses, but we also don’t want cancers to be out there, not diagnosed.”

The pandemic also put breast cancer screening in B.C. on hold for two and a half months, starting in March 2020.

“That was a mutual decision to control transmission, as well as to help direct health care resources to anticipated urgent and emergent care,” Mar said.

Since screening resumed last June, centres have implemented enhanced cleaning and safety protocols, and are operating for extended hours.

“I’m happy to say that just now in January we’re actually just over 100 per cent of where we normally would be,” he said, referring to screening rates as compared to January 2020. “Hopefully that’s a trend we’ll see continuing...hopefully we can maintain that again to sort of catch up, so to speak, for the screens that we weren’t able to perform during the suspension of the service.”

Time between appointments has increased to help with distancing, as well as to allow for extra cleaning of the equipment.

Dr. Mar encouraged those who are eligible to consider making a screening appointment.

“Early detection is what we’re really looking for when it comes to, in particular, breast cancer,” he said, and added though screening mammography is a powerful tool, it’s not a perfect test. “Another way is simply for individuals to notice a change and go on to discuss that with their health care provider .”

BC Cancer said cancer-related surgeries continued to be identified as a priority in the early days of the pandemic. They said the operations were mostly managed through health authorities, and some even occurred earlier than scheduled because of the hold on elective procedures.

Those wanting to book a mammogram can call 1-800-663-9203.