It is no secret COVID-19 has interrupted many aspects of our daily lives. Some of these interruptions can be dangerous, including delaying care for existing conditions or not getting recommended screenings. In fact, health care providers are seeing a substantial reduction in community members seeking routine cancer screenings.

Yes, the number of people being diagnosed with cancer has dropped considerably, but it is not because cancer is taking a break.

“There are just as many cases of cancer out there, but fear of regularly-scheduled health screenings in the time of this pandemic is making a huge impact on early diagnosis, when it is easier to treat cancer,” said Nikki Hyatt, Vidant Cancer Care outreach coordinator.

Dr. Emmanuel Zervos, surgical oncologist for ECU Brody School of Medicine and Vidant, and executive director of Vidant Cancer Care, echoed those sentiments, noting that early detection leads to improved outcomes.

“Monitoring patients at risk for certain cancers or who meet recommended age criteria is the key to the early detection. Cancer screening is the best way to detect cancer before symptoms arise,” Dr. Zervos said. “The easiest cancer to treat is the one that never happens. The later we diagnose a cancer, the more limited and less effective treatment options become.”

Screening is recommended as early as age 30 for some cancers, especially in higher risk patients as part of their regular health routine. The American Cancer Society is now recommending PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood testing beginning as early as age 40 for high risk patients like African-American males with strong family histories of prostate cancer.

For breast cancer, mammography screening should begin at age 40 for normal risk patients and 30 for patients with known genetic mutations or syndromes or a history of radiation treatment to their chest between the ages of 10 and 30.

The American Cancer Society has recently lowered the starting age for colon cancer screening from 50 to 45 and patients with a smoking history of more than one pack per day for 30 years may be eligible for low dose CT screening starting at age 55.

Dr. Zervos shared that anytime you are experiencing symptoms before the recommended age of screening, you should consult your primary care physician. Certain risk factors including race, family history, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol all factor in to the need to initiate cancer screenings.

“It’s important to be aware of these risk factors,” Dr. Zervos said. “Here in eastern North Carolina, there is a higher level of prostate cancer among African-American males and African-American females are 1.4 times more likely to die of cervical cancer than their Caucasian counterparts in the rest of the state.”

In terms of the impact of cancer screenings, Hyatt says Vidant was an early adopter of lung cancer screenings and this has been key to detecting it in patients who would otherwise not have known. Delaying screenings could make things more difficult for patients who could benefited from early treatments.

“We want the public to know that it is safe to resume these extremely necessary cancer screenings,” says Hyatt. “Vidant Health has processes in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19, including universal masking for all visitors and team members. Vidant is taking every precaution to keep patients and visitors safe. All patients and visitors are screened before entering the hospitals and clinics, so we want to reassure the public that these guidelines at our facilities make it a safe environment for continuing health checkups and appointments.”

For those concerned about their risk for cancer, the Vidant Cancer Prevention Clinic is open and offers information about cancer prevention as well as treatment resources. Hyatt says there are a number of ways to reduce your cancer risk, including maintaining a healthy weight and leading a more active lifestyle. Genetics testing is also available.

“Community members should contact their primary care providers to discuss resuming cancer screening,” Hyatt said.

For those who do not have health care providers, Hyatt works with uninsured patients to help provide them access to cancer screenings and the resources that can make a positive impact on maintaining good health.

For more information about the programs and resources at Vidant Cancer Care, please call 816-RISK (7475).

Highlighting Your Health is an educational segment courtesy of Vidant Health News.

Vidant is a mission-driven, 1,708-bed health system that annually serves a region of more than 1.4 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties. As a major resource for health services and education, Vidant’s mission is to improve the health and well-being of eastern North Carolina.

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.