Why You Shouldn’t Delay Your Routine Cancer Screenings During the Pandemic
When the pandemic halted elective procedures back in the spring, rates of routine cancer screenings, such as mammograms and Pap tests, plummeted. Some reports showed decreases as high as 94 percent – for breast and cervical cancer screening.
Unfortunately, with a delay in cancer screening, may come an increase in cancer diagnoses – some, at a later, more advanced stage. With this in mind, cancer experts are urging patients to get back on track with their screenings and reschedule them at the earliest and safest time possible.
“We know when cancer is found earlier, it’s more likely to be curable. Sending patients home healthy is the best possible outcome. That is our goal,” said Dr. Ana Maria López, Professor and Vice Chair of Medical Oncology and Chief of Cancer Services, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health New Jersey.
Why It’s Safe to Come Out:
Healthcare facilities are in a much different place than they were at the start of the pandemic, when things first shut down, explains Dr. Lopez. “We know how to keep patients and their clinical care teams safe. We follow the proper precautions, including social distancing within waiting rooms, spacing out appointments, and thoroughly sanitizing all areas, especially those considered high-touch surfaces.”
You can and should be confident in your healthcare teams during this time. Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay up to date with your screenings and make sure you’re taken care of in all aspects of your physical and emotional well-being.
Key Routine Cancer Screenings:
- Mammograms for breast cancer: yearly mammograms are recommended for all women at average risk with some guidelines starting at age 40. For women at high risk – due to family history – or with special considerations, such as dense breasts (in which tissue may mask cancer during a typical mammogram), additional diagnostic approaches are helpful, explains Dr. Lopez. These may include supplemental breast ultrasounds, MRIs, or mammograms with contrast.
- Pap tests and HPV testing for cervical cancer: Pap tests are recommended every 3-5 years as part of a gynecological evaluation for women 25 and older, depending on risk level. Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the primary cause of cervical cancer, and there are known strains that are specifically linked to cancer development; when found early, proper clinical recommendations can be made to reduce cancer risk significantly. HPV vaccination (which is offered to all women through age 26) is also essential. Get your vaccine and prevent cancer! Even if you’ve been vaccinated, please still follow the screening guidelines.
- Colonoscopies and/or FIT tests for colorectal cancer: screening for colorectal cancer may begin at age 45, with some of the newer guidelines. If you are at high risk, due to family history, your physician may advise earlier screening. Colonoscopies are beneficial as they allow your gastroenterologist to identify and remove any areas of concern at the same time, adds Dr. Lopez. Normal colonoscopies may only need to be repeated every 10 years. For those who have trouble finding the time for a colonoscopy or may be nervous about the procedure, FIT (fecal immunochemical testing) may be an option. This test is done from the comfort and convenience of home and only requires a small stool sample for analysis. Talk with your doctor to see which test is best for you.
- CT scans for lung cancer: screening via low-dose CT scans for lung cancer is only recommended to high-risk individuals. If you have a heavy smoking history, have had significant work/environmental exposure to toxic fumes, and/or are experiencing respiratory complications, lung cancer screening may be right for you. Talk with your physician and learn more!
- Skin exams for skin cancer: simple visual exams should be performed on a yearly basis by your primary care clinician or dermatologist starting in your 20s/30s (or younger if there’s significant sun exposure and/or family history). Aside from professional exams, it’s wise to keep an eye on your skin, personally, and talk with your healthcare team if you notice an irregular mole or any area of concern.
- PSAs and DREs for prostate cancer: screening recommendations for prostate cancer vary based on risk and patient perception of the uncertainties, risks, and potential benefits that screening may bring to the patient. Screening may include a blood test for prostate specific antigen (PSA) assessment and, at times, a digital rectal exam (DRE). Talk with your doctor to understand your risk better.
If you’re seeing an oncologist, speak with them about cancer screening, urges Dr. Lopez. If you’re not, your primary care professional is your BEST partner in cancer prevention. Don’t hesitate to ask them about each type of screening and when you’re due.
Some people may experience warning signs that warrant earlier screening. If you notice a skin lesion that doesn’t go away; a new mole; a change in your breast; a change in bowel habits; or unexpected weight loss; speak to your healthcare team it right away.
“The most important thing is to know your body,” said Dr. Lopez. “If you feel like something is ‘off,’ don’t sit home and worry about it. Reach out and express your concerns. It may be something completely benign, but the sooner it is addressed, the better.”