COVID-19 has significantly impacted healthcare worldwide. Lack of screening and limited access to healthcare has delayed diagnosis and treatment of various malignancies. The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic on sphincter-preserving surgery in patients with rectal cancer.
This was a single-center retrospective study of patients undergoing surgery for newly diagnosed rectal cancer. Patients operated on during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020-February 2021) comprised the study group (COVID-19 era), while patients operated on prior to the pandemic (March 2016-February 2020) served as the control group (pre-COVID-19).
This study included 234 patients diagnosed with rectal cancer; 180 (77%) patients in the pre-COVID-19 group and 54 patients (23%) in the COVID-19-era group. There were no differences between the groups in terms of mean patient age, sex, or body mass index. The COVID-19-era group presented with a significantly higher rate of locally advanced disease (stage T3/T4 79% vs 58%; P = .02) and metastatic disease (9% vs 3%; P = .05). The COVID-19-era group also had a much higher percentage of patients treated with total neoadjuvant therapy (52% vs 15%; P = .001) and showed a significantly lower rate of sphincter-preserving surgery (73% vs 86%; P = .028). Time from diagnosis to surgery in this group was also significantly longer (median 272 vs 146 days; P < .0001).
Patients undergoing surgery for rectal cancer during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic presented later and at a more advanced stage. They were more likely to be treated with total neoadjuvant therapy and were less likely candidates for sphincter-preserving surgery.

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