Don't delay life-saving cancer screenings

[4 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • How routine cancer screenings can catch cancer or pre-cancerous conditions earlier

  • Three essential cancer screenings you shouldn’t delay

  • Providence oncologist Michele Carpenter says fears of COVID-19 shouldn’t keep you from seeking this essential care

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many doctor’s offices, imaging centers, and labs were closed and appointments, including critical cancer screenings, were canceled for patient and caregiver safety. While widespread efforts helped prevent millions of people from getting the virus, it also meant many missed out on essential cancer screenings. 

Today, vaccinations, more knowledge about the virus, and new safety procedures mean most patients can feel confident about seeking care--including those essential screenings. “Cancer screenings are essential to keep you healthy,” says Dr. Michele Carpenter, a Providence breast surgical oncologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA. “In fact, delaying them due to fears of contracting COVID-19 can actually cause more harm than good. You can be assured that Providence is taking necessary precautions to reduce your risk of COVID exposure when you’re in the office so you can be confident in scheduling your screenings.”

Essential cancer screenings

Staying up to date on vaccines and well visits can help you stay healthy and well, and cancer screenings may even be more important for your long-term health. They can catch cancer in its earliest stages when it’s easier to treat and leads to better outcomes. 

If it’s time to schedule your regular cancer screenings, like a mammogram, colonoscopy, or prostate exam – and especially if you have any concerning symptoms – don’t delay getting the care you need. Discover why these cancer screenings are so critical to your health.

Mammograms

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends these guidelines for getting a mammogram:

  • Women age 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year.
  • Women age 55 and older should switch to mammograms every two years, or continue yearly screening.
  • Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live 10 more years or longer.

Other agencies offer different recommendations but ultimately your doctor can recommend a different screening schedule if you are at higher risk of developing breast cancer.

A mammogram is a proven tool in lowering your risk of dying from breast cancer. Pushing back your annual or biannual screening by six months or a year can allow a cancer that could have been caught early to progress – which may mean it can be more difficult to treat.

“Typically, if you are in good health or if you have a higher risk of breast cancer, you shouldn’t delay any screenings,” says Dr. Ibrahim Shalaby, oncologist at Providence’s Covenant Medical Group.

Colon cancer screenings

Colon cancer is a highly treatable cancer, especially when it’s caught early. A colonoscopy is a proven screening tool to detect polyps in the large intestine before they turn into cancer.  Putting off a colonoscopy means you are putting yourself at much higher risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that most individuals should start getting a regular colonoscopy around age 50. You may need a colonoscopy sooner if you are at high risk of developing colorectal cancer or are experiencing troubling symptoms.

You may be at higher risk if you have:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Genetic syndromes

Certain lifestyle factors, including weight, diet and lack of physical activity may also put you at higher risk of developing colon cancer. 

Symptoms of colon cancer may include:

  • Bloody stools
  • Stomach cramps or pains that don’t go away
  • Unexplained weight loss

Talk to your doctor if it’s time for your regular colonoscopy or if you’re experiencing any new or troubling symptoms.

Prostate cancer screenings

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer, behind only skin cancer. Fortunately, it is a slow-spreading cancer, which means when caught early it is easy to treat. The best way to catch prostate cancer in its early stages is with regular prostate cancer screenings, which may include:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE): Your physician will insert a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to check for lumps or hard areas on the prostate. Most men have this exam during their annual wellness exam.
  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test: A blood test will check for levels of a certain protein, called prostate-specific antigen (PSA). Elevated blood PSA levels may indicate you need additional testing for prostate cancer.

The ACS estimates that one in nine men will develop prostate cancer in his lifetime. Some men are at higher risk, including African American men and men with a family history of prostate cancer. All men, regardless of risk, should have a basic screening or conversation about prostate cancer at wellness exams. And if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately:

  • Trouble urinating
  • Bloody urine or semen
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Pain in hips, back or chest

Your doctor can help you understand your risk of developing prostate cancer and the importance of regular prostate cancer screenings.

Understand your risk of cancer and COVID-19

Most of us are safer – and better off – sticking to routine cancer screenings, even during the battle to eliminate COVID-19. . That’s because healthcare providers, including those of us here at Providence, are taking the necessary steps and precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 for our patients, visitors and families.

Even if you have not been vaccinated or are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, your doctor may still feel that the need for regular cancer screenings outweighs those risks. If you’re not sure what to do, the best place to start is with a conversation with your doctor. The ACS recommends asking your doctor the following questions to assess your risk of COVID-19 compared to your risk of cancer.

  • What is my risk for the cancer I am being screened for?
  • What is my risk of being exposed to COVID-19 during a cancer screening?
  • Does my risk for cancer outweigh my risk of COVID-19 complications?
  • How is your office keeping patients, visitors, and families safe from COVID-19?
  • What happens if I miss a screening?

You can send a message to your provider through MyChart or call their office directly. Or, you can schedule a telehealth visit through Providence Express Care Virtual to discuss your options and make a plan that’s right for your health and safety.

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Related resources

Seven safety steps

Don’t delay care if you need care

Getting comfortable with telemedicine during COVID-19

What will healthcare look like post-COVID?

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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