Why you should keep up with cancer screenings

A patient and a provider wearing face masks look at a computer screen together.

People may be putting off cancer screenings because of COVID-19. And that has health experts worried. It could mean that thousands of cancers will go undetected, causing unnecessary deaths.

A study in JAMA Network Open found that the number of newly diagnosed cancer cases for six common cancers fell by about 46% between the first two months of this year (before shutdowns) and the next two months (during shutdowns). That steep decline suggests a significant drop in cancer screening tests.

If you've postponed a cancer screening due to COVID-19, here are three things you should know:

1. Delays can be dangerous. Screenings are meant to find cancer in its earliest stages before it causes symptoms. That's when it's usually easier to treat. Waiting could mean that cancer gets caught at a later stage, when it is more advanced.

2. Your safety is a top priority. Screening centers are taking steps to keep you safe when you come in for your test. These steps may include:

  • Checking patients for COVID-19 symptoms before their test.
  • Staggering visits to avoid overcrowding.
  • Limiting visitors.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting equipment and surfaces often.
  • Requiring all staff and patients to wear face masks.

3. You may have options. Depending on the type of test and your risk factors, short delays may be OK. For instance, many women get Pap tests yearly. But the American Cancer Society says women only need a cervical cancer screening every three to five years. So a delay of a few months might not be significant. For some cancers, there may also be screening options that can be done at home or virtually. Start by asking your doctor what options are available and what screening schedule may be right for you.

Learn more about preventing cancer in our Cancer health topic center.

Reviewed 10/21/2020

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