Cancer screenings have dropped since COVID-19, doctors stress screenings save lives

Mar 2, 2022, 5:04 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 9:49 pm

MURRAY, Utah—Cancer screenings have dropped off dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago. That’s according to doctors at Intermountain Healthcare who stressed today that those screenings save lives.

Many Utahns put off trips to the doctor during the pandemic. Doctors at Intermountain Healthcare want to make sure that people don’t skip critical cancer screenings like colonoscopies. They also urge us to have conversations with family members about our cancer history.

“Tens of thousands of Americans lose their lives every year to this disease,” said Dr. Mark Lewis, an Intermountain Healthcare Oncologist.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer overall, and one of the deadliest. But, doctors with Intermountain Healthcare say routine colorectal screenings are down 50% since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a serious problem because the earlier cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat, and survive.

March is colorectal cancer awareness month. So, get a colonoscopy right away if you have symptoms that include bloody stool, abdominal pain, and unexplained weight loss.

“It is safe to come back,” said Dr. Nathan Merriman, an Intermountain Healthcare Gastroenterologist.

“There have been several patient stories where we’ve had four, six, nine months of rectal bleeding before getting a colonoscopy, and that is too long to wait.”

Regular screenings, beginning at age 45, are the key to preventing colorectal cancer and finding it early.

“It’s never been more important to catch these cancers earlier and minimize the number of cases that require chemo,” said Lewis.

As routine screenings dropped off, doctors have seen a 15% increase in patients with colorectal cancer in more advanced stages which require chemotherapy. That’s about a 15% increase in cases of stage III (node-positive) cancers in which chemotherapy will be recommended, Lewis said.

“This is largely, not entirely, but largely a preventable illness, and we can certainly intervene at earlier stages before you need someone like me,” said the oncologist.

You only need Dr. Mark Lewis if the cancer is sufficiently advanced to require chemotherapy. If the cancer is detected earlier, you may never need to see him.

“It’s really important to talk to family members about patterns of illness and disease and medical problems to understand what we’re at risk for,” said Merriman.

That may seem uncomfortable. But, those conversations can save lives. Take a multigenerational approach to better understand your individual risk for cancer. It’s good to know who in your family has had cancer, which type and at what age, Lewis said.

“You want to know in as much detail as possible what diseases run in your family.”

If you’re not quite sure when you need to get screened based on family history, talk to your physician.

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Cancer screenings have dropped since COVID-19, doctors stress screenings save lives