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Even during a pandemic, prioritize lifesaving cancer screenings

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Mehraj u Din Lone, a researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute speaks with Susan Lee, a lung cancer survivor who was treated at the institute, in a research lab at the institute in Salt Lake on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017.

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It has been more than five months since Gov. Gary Herbert declared the initial state of emergency in Utah in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, each of us has experienced alterations in our personal and professional lives, including changes in how we mark milestones, like birthdays — no more parties and large family gatherings. 

But earlier this summer, when I celebrated my birthday, I made sure to follow one important tradition: That day is my annual reminder to schedule my cancer screening tests and exams. For me and other women over 40, this means a yearly mammogram to detect breast cancer. As a melanoma survivor, I also visit my dermatologist annually to make sure there are no new signs of early skin cancer. I also receive regular colonoscopies to help prevent colorectal cancer, and I get screening to detect early signs of cervical cancer. 

Cancer mortality in the United States declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017. A substantial portion of this reduction is attributed to improvements in cancer screening, early detection and prevention — so I take cancer screening very seriously.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all made efforts to curb the spread of the virus. One of the biggest concerns for those of us who dedicate our lives to reducing the cancer burden is that cancellation of routine health checkups might result in fewer lifesaving cancer screenings. It is now clear that is exactly what is happening. 

Since the pandemic began, there has been a steep reduction in new cancer diagnoses in the United States that is attributable to decreased cancer screening and detection. For example, it is estimated that since March, there has been a 75% decline in mammography screening for breast cancer. Reductions have also been observed in screenings for colorectal, skin and lung cancers.

Delays in cancer screening and diagnosis can have a devastating impact on cancer mortality because it is much more challenging to treat cancers detected at late stages. Indeed, the National Cancer Institute released predictive models for breast and colorectal cancer incidence suggesting the United States will experience 10,000 more deaths in the next decade from just these two types of cancer. These deaths are predicted to occur as a direct consequence of the reduction in screening and treatment anticipated to result from just a six-month COVID-19-related disruption. 

Many people have expressed concerns about going to a hospital or clinic for cancer screening because they are afraid of catching the coronavirus. But fear not. Hospitals and clinics across Utah are taking extra precautions to keep patients and providers safe, including procedures such as temperature checks, hand sanitizing, mandatory masking, physical distancing and reduced visitor policies. Perhaps a greater risk than contracting coronavirus during a cancer screening visit is the risk of missing a cancer diagnosis by postponing regular cancer screening. 

I urge you to take action and reschedule your health and cancer screenings, and encourage your loved ones to do so as well. If you do not have insurance or do not know where to obtain your screenings, please contact Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Cancer Learning Center at 1-888-424-2100. This free resource for our community is staffed by trained health educators who will answer all of your screening-related questions. They can also connect you with community organizations and health systems within the region and can provide resources to help you access these essential medical services.

Additionally, Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Cancer Education and Screening Bus, which was temporarily redeployed earlier this spring and summer to support community COVID-19 testing, is now resuming mobile mammography screening, making cancer screening more convenient by bringing these services closer to home. 

It will take some time to fully realize the impact of COVID-19 on our communities. Yet, even during these uncertain times, one thing is clear: regular screenings detect cancers early and save lives. Prioritizing your regular cancer screenings may also save your life.  

Mary Beckerle is the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.