Cancer Screening in the Time of COVID-19

The year 2020 has proven to be a year like no other. Restrictions related to COVID-19 have created many challenges to daily life, including access to routine health care services like cancer screenings. This has resulted in significant declines in screenings, which may lead to delays in diagnosing cancers and decreased survival. Dr. Norman Sharpless, Director of the National Cancer Institute, estimates an increase of 10,000 deaths from colorectal and breast cancer in the next decade due to missed screenings.

In Maryland, to date more than 4,100 people have lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. In comparison, the American Cancer Society estimates 10,790 Marylanders will die this year as a result of cancer. We know that cancer screening saves lives. It allows doctors to detect cancer early before symptoms have developed, and early detection means a better chance of survival.

Health care facilities are open and ready for you to schedule and complete your cancer screening. New policies and procedures are in place to ensure your health and safety.

Here are some cancers you should be screened for and how screening is done:

Breast Cancer

*Breast cancer is diagnosed most often in women, however men can also be affected.

*Mammograms are the breast cancer- screening exam recommended for women. Women should begin screening mammograms between 40-50 years old based on guidance from your doctor. Screening mammograms should be repeated every 1-2 years.

Cervical Cancer

*Cervical cancer only affects women.

*Women should begin screening for cervical cancer at 21 years old. Cervical cancer screening is done with Pap smears and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) tests. New guidelines from the American Cancer Society focus on testing for HPV, which causes nearly all cervical cancers. These tests should be repeated every 3 to 5 years depending on what tests are performed.

Colorectal Cancer

*Colorectal cancer affects both men and women.

*Starting at 45 years old, individuals can begin colorectal cancer screening with a variety of exams including colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy stool-based tests. Colorectal cancer screening should be repeated every 1-10 years depending on the test performed.

Screening recommendations may vary based on your personal and family history or other individual risk factors. It is important to have a health care provider help you understand the recommendations. If you do not have a regular doctor or health insurance, take advantage of programs such as the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Baltimore City Cancer Program (BCCP). The BCCP offers no-cost cancer screenings to uninsured residents of Baltimore City and the surrounding area. It also helps insured individuals in need of financial support, appointment scheduling and transportation assistance. For more information, call BCCP at 410- 328-HOPE (4673).

If it’s time for your cancer-screening exam, don’t allow COVID-19 to stop you. Call and schedule your screening exam today. Before you go, contact your health care facility so you know how to prepare for your appointment. Plan to wear a mask. Know that you may be asked screening questions about COVID-19 symptoms and that many facilities are not allowing you to bring someone with you.

Stay safe and take action to protect yourself from cancer and COVID-19 in 2020 and beyond!

Shana O. Ntiri, MD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor of Department of Family & Community Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Medical Director, Baltimore City Cancer Program, Senior Medical Advisor, Community Outreach and Engagement, University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer