Keeping Up With Cancer Screenings Despite COVID-19

Premier Health Cancer Prevention Program Takes Extra Steps to Identify Cancer Risk

One of your best defenses against cancer is catching it early through routine screenings. During the first months of the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic, however, many people delayed regular screenings for breast, colon, and other cancers. In 2021, Premier Health worked to reverse that trend and offer an extra level of vigilance for people at higher risk for cancer.

The American Cancer Society and National Comprehensive Cancer Network reported the following on screening delays and speculated on long-term effects:

  • More than one-third of adults failed to receive recommended cancer screenings during the pandemic.
  • An estimated 22 million cancer screenings were canceled or missed between March and June 2020.
  • 43 percent of patients missed routine preventive appointments due to COVID-19 fears.
  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that over the next 10 years, almost 10,000 excess deaths in the U.S. from breast and colorectal cancer alone will result from pandemic-related delays in cancer screenings and treatment.

“We have seen patients being diagnosed at more advanced stages because they either missed their screening or had a symptom, but were fearful of going out in public or seeing a medical professional during the pandemic,” says Emily Townsend, MSN, RN, OCN, oncology program manager.

Premier Health halted cancer screenings briefly in spring 2020 but quickly resumed them. The cancer team also looked for creative solutions to make screenings more accessible. For example, Premier Health promoted the Polymedco Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) to screen for blood in the stool, as well as markers that come off of tumors or advanced polyps.

The at-home test requires submitting a stool sample for lab analysis. If anything unusual is found, the patient receives a follow-up colonoscopy, which is still considered the most effective screening tool for colorectal cancer. The value of FIT is to provide a screening alternative for people who have no symptoms and are reluctant to have a colonoscopy or go to a health care facility during the pandemic.

Townsend emphasizes the safety of getting screenings at Premier Health facilities: “We follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations.”

She strongly encourages people to schedule screenings according to American Cancer Society guidelines.

Premier Health Expands Cancer Prevention Program

To increase early detection of cancer, Townsend says it’s also important to identify patients at greatest risk of getting cancer. In 2021, Premier Health expanded its Cancer Prevention Program to nearly all of its primary care and gynecology offices.

The program uses Myriad Genetics Laboratories’ myRisk® questionnaire and hereditary cancer testing, which patients can complete during routine physicals. If patients answer “yes” to at least one of the questions, they can have a phone conversation with a Myriad genetic counselor during their appointment.

If the patient and provider agree, the patient can then get a blood test the same day that screens for 35 different genetic mutations associated with eight hereditary cancer types. Results take about four to six weeks to come back. Patient and doctor then make a personalized care plan to address any cancer risks. Patients can also opt for a follow-up conversation with the genetics counselor for a detailed explanation of results.

“Premier Health’s Cancer Prevention Program is another way we are helping our patients identify if they have an increased risk, need additional screenings, or screenings starting at any earlier age,” says Joseph Allen, MD, medical director for Premier Physician Network. Once high-risk patients are identified, they can partner with their doctors to get screening tests at recommended intervals, develop a healthful diet plan, exercise, decrease alcohol use, and quit unhealthy habits, such as smoking.

“More than 700 Premier patients completed the process in the first nine months of 2021,” he notes. “Ninety-two percent had no out-of-pocket expense. That’s something special you’re not getting everywhere else.”