Delaying Colon Cancer Screening Because of COVID Could Be a Deadly Mistake

COVID-19 has certainly changed our lives in ways we never expected, to put it mildly.  Because patient safety is always our top priority, we’ve taken exceptional measures in our practices to keep patients and staff safe in this new environment. Right now, many of our patients are receiving wonderful guidance from providers during virtual telehealth appointments.  In fact, a new study published by the American Gastroenterological Association (in which Capital Digestive Care participated) shows that patients and gastroenterologists have given telehealth visits high marks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our offices are also beginning to schedule more in-person appointments, and our endoscopy centers are reopening for much-needed colon cancer screenings. Not only are we taking every precaution in terms of infection control and social distancing, we are also testing patients for COVID-19 before procedures to ensure the health of patients and staff. Despite these enhanced safety protocols in our practice and in practices around the country, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows nearly half of those polled said a family member has skipped getting medical care during the pandemic. Additionally, colon cancer screenings are down 90 percent compared to this time last year.

This is a troubling trend because the need for lifesaving colon cancer screening remains a priority for a large segment of our population and should not be delayed due to COVID-19.  One reason for urgency is that colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.  The world was saddened recently when beloved actor Chadwick Boseman lost his four-year battle with this disease at the age of 43. Even though most colon cancer cases are diagnosed in adults 50 or older, we are unfortunately seeing an increase in colorectal cancer deaths in younger patients. Nearly one out of every 10 people diagnosed is under age 50, and certain groups, such as African Americans are at higher risk than other groups.

Colon cancer screening is where we can do the best preventative care by actually removing precancerous polyps before they become cancer. Because colonoscopies can both identify and remove these polyps, we CAN prevent cancer from ever forming/growing.  The colonoscopy itself usually takes 20-30 minutes to perform with mild sedation, and for the vast majority of patients the procedure is quite simple. When the procedure is over, my patients often remark that they have had the best sleep of their lives. In general, most report feeling back to themselves within an hour after the procedure and can return to work or other regular activities the next day.  

There are other screening options such as Cologuard, hemoccult stool testing, and virtual colonoscopy. And while we believe the best screening test is the one that gets completed, it’s important to understand the limitations of these alternatives.  These tests may be able to detect cancer, but do not provide the ability for diagnosis and treatment at the same sitting.  If your result is positive, you will need to have a colonoscopy to confirm and diagnose the extent of disease, if present.  This is why colonoscopy remains the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening.  

I encourage any patients with questions or concerns to talk to their provider to find out whether it is time for them to begin screening.  Your personal health history and symptoms are important to consider when deciding how to move forward with this kind of care.  So, I would urge anyone who is overdue for a colonoscopy due to the pandemic to not wait any longer. Contact us now to schedule an appointment or to find out whether you’re due for this potentially lifesaving screening.