Column: Time to catch up on life-saving medical screenings

This column appeared in the August 2021 edition of Newsmax Magazine

The summer has marked a welcome sense in Americans’ consciousness of renewal, reopening and much-needed levity. While pre-pandemic normalcy remains elusive for many, we should all take active steps to address delayed and neglected health priorities. Perhaps nowhere is this more serious today than with the worrisome public trend inside cancer screening rates.

A Johns Hopkins survey recently published in JAMA Network Open found that 41 percent of U.S. adults skipped some form of medical care or treatment between March and mid-July 2020. Nearly all respondents attributed their motivations to the pandemic.

The problem with this is that regular screenings are directly associated with reduced mortality from various cancers, including colorectal and lung cancers. Missed screenings are especially worrisome because of the increasingly younger age of diagnosis observed in several cancers in recent years.

According to The Journal of Clinical Oncology, when the coronavirus began to surge in the late spring of 2020, breast mammograms were down 85 percent from 2019 figures. Colonoscopies and lung cancer screenings also dropped 75 percent. Prostate cancer screenings declined 56 percent during the same period.

Dr. Michael Zinner, CEO of the Miami Cancer Institute, believes that delays in the areas of breast, lung and colon screening as a result of the pandemic is a troublesome sign to the medical community. “When we factor data into our computer modeling and look ahead 10 years, we see potentially 5,000 more deaths from breast cancer and 4,000 more for colon cancer, simply because people decided to forego their regular cancer screenings during the pandemic,” Dr. Zinner says. “We’re looking at a ticking time bomb here – one with a 10-year fuse.” The National Cancer Institute backs up Dr. Zinner’s predictions with their down data that anticipates up to 10,000 excess deaths in the U.S. from breast and colorectal cancers alone over the next decade.

Screening delays are likely to have a disproportionate effect on underserved and at-risk communities. Black, Hispanic and even Native American people, who statistically where more adversely impacted by COVID, also possess cancer-screening rates that are below average. It will be particularly important for local, state and federal government health officials, along with the medical community writ large, to communicate and engage with this population on the importance of screenings during the months to come.

The pandemic placed unprecedented stress on American medical personnel and local health facilities resulting in an understandable delay in elective procedures. While the coronavirus and variants remain in circulation, it’s important for everyone to note that doctor’s offices and community health centers are safer than ever before for patients. Many if not most have loosened their COVID-related protocol during the summer months and eagerly anticipate the arrival of patients to address the present cancer screening backlog.

In August and September, as millions of children return to in-person instruction, it’s essential that their parents, grandparents and others who care about their future, return to their primary care physician to ensure they’re up to date on their cancer screenings. It may very well save your life.

Nancy Brinker is a former Ambassador, Presidential Media of Freedom recipient and founder of Susan G. Komen and The Promise Fund of Florida.