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We're Overdue For This Essential Cancer Screening, Says New Study

Millions of Americans didn't get screened for breast, colon and prostate cancer.

Millions of people in the U.S. skipped routine cancer screenings during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study says.

Looking at health insurance data from nearly 60 million Americans, researchers from the University of Kansas found there were about 9.4 million fewer cancer screenings in 2020 than the year before, including 4 million fewer mammograms and colonoscopies and 1.5 million fewer screenings for prostate cancer.

In March 2020, communities throughout the U.S. began implementing restrictions because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. In some areas, hospitals canceled elective procedures to preserve resources for COVID patients. For much of the year, guidance about routine medical care was less than clear-cut; experts advised Americans to consult their doctors about their personal need to undergo routine cancer screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. 

The new study found that for whatever reason, millions of people did not get those tests. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID and Didn't Know It.

One type of cancer screening stayed low

Researchers found that the greatest decline in testing was in April 2020, when breast cancer screenings declined by 91% and colorectal cancer screenings fell 79%. For breast and prostate cancers, monthly screening levels had nearly recovered by July. Colon cancer screenings were still 13% lower that month than in 2019.

"As cases rose across the country, many states began to implement stay-at-home orders. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started to issue guidance to help individuals reduce exposure," the researchers wrote. "As a result, hospitals and clinics across the country dramatically reduced non-emergency clinical appointments. These changes likely had a direct and negative influence on cancer screening. Delays in cancer screenings owing to COVID-19 are suspected to lead to additional excess deaths that are directly attributable to the pandemic."

The researchers noted that there were limitations to their study, such as including only people with health insurance. They said more research was needed to track and address the effects of the missed tests. "This may be a temporary delay," they wrote. "Public health efforts are needed to address the large cancer screening deficit, including increased use of screening modalities that do not require a procedure."

In July 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious-disease expert, said that Americans should continue to prioritize preventative health care, including routine testing, "if it's safe to do."

"Depending upon where you live and the status of the outbreak … you should try, if it's safe to do, to continue to do the kind of things that look after your general health," he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The one thing we don't want is for people to stay away from things that later on, because they didn't do proper screening, would lead to infections or cancers or cardiovascular disease that you could have avoided if you got routine medical care." So get screened, and to protect your health, don't miss these Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael
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