This past year we have found ourselves facing some difficult decisions. With the world and our local community grappled by a pandemic, every trip to the store, a restaurant, or to see family seems to come with some risk. As time has gone on and experience has shown us what activities are safer than others, most of us have found our own sweet spot in terms of what level of risk we are comfortable with.
Early in the pandemic, however, the world seemed to come to a complete standstill, which included hospitals and doctors’ offices. For several weeks this past spring, colon cancer screenings came to a complete halt. Fortunately, over time we have been able to develop practices and protocols that allowed us to safely resume important cancer screening exams. However, many patients are still continuing to express concern and delay their screening exams due to COVID-19.
In an editorial in Science magazine this summer, National Cancer Institute director Norman Sharpless, MD, estimated that the reduction in screening and resulting delays in diagnosis and treatment could lead to as many as 10,000 extra deaths from breast and colorectal cancer over the next decade. If the slowdown in screening exams had only been a few weeks, the harm would have relatively been minimal, but as the pandemic continues, the effects become far-reaching.
For most people, colon cancer screening begins at the age of 45 with a screening colonoscopy. This is an outpatient procedure performed by a gastroenterologist in search of polyps. Polyps are pre-cancerous lesions found in the colon that can be removed via colonoscopy to prevent colorectal cancer from developing. The procedure is done under sedation and is considered a safe procedure with very low incidence of complications. There are other methods of screening, though colonoscopy remains the gold standard as both a diagnostic and a preventative test.
To allow us to continue these important exams while keeping the patients, physicians, and staff safe from COVID-19, DHR Health and many other hospitals have implemented protocols to help limit the risk of exposure. For our facilities this includes screening patients for COVID-19 with a nasal swab to detect the virus prior to the procedure as well as strict personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines.
I recommend discussing with your doctor if you are due for your colonoscopy as it is important not to delay these and other screening exams. If your risks for COVID-19 complications are high, or if you prefer to delay your colonoscopy, talk to your doctor about alternatives for screening, such as stool testing, until the pandemic ends. While the pandemic continues, it is important to recognize that your health is one thing you should not delay.
If you or someone you know would like more information, please call DHR Health Gastroenterology Institute at (956) 362-3636.