Looking back on 2020, COVID-19 had a profound and damaging impact on the country in a number of ways. One such way that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public is related to the number of diagnosed cases of cancer. You see, while the number of COVID-19 cases rose around the country, certain diagnosed cases of cancer were on the decline - including colorectal cancer. Reading this information, you’d think we have just found the lone bright spot in an otherwise difficult year! However, a look behind the curtain reveals an unfortunate truth. The decline in cancer diagnoses was not due to a decrease in actual cancer cases, but due to a dramatic decrease in cancer screenings - a trend that needs to reverse course in 2021, and quickly.
Why are Screenings Down?
When COVID-19 burst onto the scene early this past spring, clinics and hospitals in different hot spots around the country quickly became overwhelmed with patients. At the same time, there was still a genuine lack of information regarding the potency and contagious nature of the virus. In an attempt to reduce patient contact and also to conserve resources in the healthcare systems, the American Society of Clinical Oncology recommended that certain cancer screening procedures be postponed if that procedure required a visit to a clinic or oncology center. As such, hospitals and clinics across the nation canceled or delayed this ‘elective’ procedure until further notice.
As 2020 lurched forward, more information regarding protective measures and patient safety became available to doctors, who then began to safely schedule screenings again. Unfortunately, this time gap in screening availability - through no fault of anyone’s - is going to come at a cost, as cancer is a disease that doesn’t delay or stop due to social changes or worldwide pandemics. As people reschedule missed appointments and/or simply wait for their next scheduled screening, too many will find out later than they should have that they have colorectal cancer. And as we have come to understand with cancer, every day counts when it comes to early detection and treatment.
Should I Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer?
The key to early detection when it comes to cancer and other diseases is getting screened. The earlier that you are able to diagnose colorectal cancer, the easier it potentially becomes to treat. Screening can help find precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they become cancerous. The American Cancer Society reports that over 4% of men and women will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime. It is the 3rd leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women and represents over 8% of all newly diagnosed cancers. In light of this information, it is recommended that screenings begin around the age of 50 unless one has a family history with colorectal cancer, in which case screening should happen earlier and by the advice of a doctor.
What are My Options for Colorectal Cancer Screenings?
There are several tests and/or screens your doctor may recommend or administer to check for the presence of colorectal cancer.
Fecal tests are a method used by doctors to detect blood in the stool, which may be an indicator of cancer. You can use at-home tests, but the two most common prescribed tests are the FIT (Fecal Immunochemical Test) and the gFOBT (Guaiac-based Fecal Occult Blood Test). While blood in the stool may indicate the presence of cancer, it could also indicate another type of issue, like hemorrhoids. Therefore, if blood is found, your doctor will recommend and administer another test/screen to discover the root problem.
A Virtual Colonoscopy (sometimes known as a CT colonography) may be administered for patients that cannot have a colonoscopy due to the anesthesia. Where as a colonoscopy looks at the large intestine from the inside, the Virtual Colonoscopy looks at it from the outside by way of a CT scan. This scan produces hundreds of images which are put together by radiologists to provide an accurate picture of the large intestine and to identify any abnormalities.
The most commonly known screening for colorectal cancer is the colonoscopy, as referenced above. A colonoscopy is a procedure that allows a doctor to see the entire colon. During a colonoscopy, a thin tube with a light is softly eased into your anus and rectum and up into the colon. The colonoscopy tube has a small camera on it that shows your doctor pictures as the tube progresses through the inside of the colon. If necessary, the physician may take a small sample of tissue through the tube for further examination. This is called a biopsy. The patient is sedated and given pain medication before the procedure to make him or her more comfortable.
A sigmoidoscopy is a test that is similar to the colonoscopy. In this procedure, however, the patient is normally not sedated as it is uncomfortable, but generally painless. The difference in the colonoscopy and the sigmoidoscopy is in how far up the tube goes into the colon. During a sigmoidoscopy, a small, lit tube is inserted into the anus and rectum and stops in the lower colon, or sigmoid colon. If necessary, a biopsy may be taken, but if polyps are present, a colonoscopy may be recommended for a more thorough examination.
My Screening was Canceled During COVID-19. When Should I Reschedule?
If you missed your scheduled screening, you should reschedule an appointment as soon as possible! When it comes to cancer, time is always of the essence. If you are concerned about the potential of colorectal cancer and have been experiencing symptoms like blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, or a change in bowel movements, contact us today to schedule a consultation with one of our doctors.
Please know, for all of you who may be concerned about COVID-19 and office visits, we care deeply about your health and are taking all of the recommended cautions and preventative measures possible to keep you safe and slow the spread of COVID-19.