Cancer Screenings Are More Important Now Than Ever

Do you know when your patients had their last recommended cancer screenings?

At its outset, the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately resulted in the delay of many scheduled health procedures — including cancer screenings. While a recent Dana Farber Cancer Institute study reported cancer screenings rebounded sharply in late 2020 it also indicated racial disparities in the return to screenings, particularly with mammography and with Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic patients. It’s also worth noting colonoscopy screenings did not return to pre-pandemic levels, although that could result from the use of home-based methods.

Missed or delayed screenings can, of course, lead to delayed diagnoses as well as adverse oncologic outcomes and increased mortality rates. The Dana Farber Cancer Institute study, which was released in July 2021, suggests that, although the late 2020 rebound of screenings helped make up for some “missed” screenings from earlier in the pandemic, a significant number of cancers still remain undiagnosed — making promotion of screenings more important now than ever.

As we know, for patients, there are two key messages to communicate to help get them back on track with their recommended screenings:

  1. Emphasizing the positive impact early detection and treatment can have on their long-term health. Simply put, early detection leads to the likelihood the cancer will be easier to treat and they will be less likely to die.
  2. Reassuring them of COVID-19 safety protocols that will help protect them in a healthcare setting.

Breast Cancer Screenings

Considering October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to discuss the importance of breast cancer screenings with your patients. Check in with them about when they had their last mammogram, or whether now is the time to get started with annual screenings based on their age or history.

As a helpful reminder, the American Cancer Society’s current guidelines for breast cancer screenings are as follows:

  • Age 40–44: Women have the option to start annual mammography screenings
  • Age 45–54: Women should get an annual mammogram
  • Age 55+: Women may choose annual mammograms or go every other year

Due to family history or genetic tendencies, some women with a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer may need to start annual mammography screenings at an earlier age or should be screened with MRIs in combination with mammograms.

Colon and Rectal Cancer and Polyps

It’s all too easy for patients to put off colonoscopy screenings. The idea just makes people uncomfortable. Talk to your patients about whether a stool-based test may be an alternative to colonoscopy — or why it’s not. The critical thing is to help your patients understand why screening is important.

The American Cancer Society’s current guidelines for colon and rectal cancer and polyps screenings are as follows:

  • Age 45–75: Patients should get regular screenings
  • Age 76–85: Screenings are optional based on health and screening history
  • Age 85+: Screenings are no longer recommended

Patients with a higher-than-average risk of these cancers may require screening at an earlier age.

Additional Cancer Screenings

Based on age, gender, genetics, and history, your patients may need regular screenings for other cancers as well, including:

For your convenience, you can click on the links above to get information about screening guidelines for each so you can best inform your patients about what’s recommended to help keep them healthy today and tomorrow.

Robert Winn, MD
Internal Medicine
Richmond, VA