Is it safe to get a mammogram, a colonoscopy, or other cancer screenings during the pandemic?

is it safe to get a mammogram cancer screening
Photo via National Human Genome Research Institute/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Screenings have plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic
  • People who aren’t high risk are less likely to reschedule appointments
  • There’s concern that treatable illnesses will be missed

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the U.S., many Americans are wondering: Is it safe to get a mammogram or other kind of cancer screening during the pandemic?

Depending on the area of the country, the risk presented by COVID-19 varies wildly. Much of the Northeast U.S., initially hard hit, had begun reopening as their infection numbers continue declining while large swathes of the Midwest and South experienced their highest numbers yet. Yet, as much of the U.S. is being hit hard again in November and December, advice on the safety of scheduling mammograms and other cancer screening procedures varies depending on where you live.

If your state’s numbers are on the rise, it is probably wisest to avoid any non-essential medical visits. A mammogram, colonoscopy, routine prostate cancer screening, or lung cancer screening can all be put on hold for around six months—or maybe more. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network strongly recommends that people avoid scheduling these appointments “until the pandemic is over,” according to Mayo Clinic

If you are due for a pap smear or HPV test, however, recommendations may vary. Mayo Clinic suggests consulting with your doctor to determine the best route and to see if it’s safe to get a mammogram or colonoscopy. Telemedicine is an option in some cases because it sidesteps any risk posed by entering a public space. Not all situations will allow this, however. 

In states where case numbers are falling, some doctor’s offices are rescheduling these necessary screenings. This is good news, as various cancer screenings have plummeted in recent months. In March, cervix, colon, and breast cancer screenings dropped by between 86-94% compared to yearly averages. By the end of September, one report claimed that cancer screenings were back to 2019 levels, though one southern California official said, “These rates do not reflect the steep decline in the early months of the pandemic due to canceled or rescheduled appointments.”

The Miami Herald, meanwhile, wrote that there may be more than 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colorectal cancer during the next decade because people didn’t get tested during the pandemic.

While these screenings can typically be put off, health experts are growing concerned that many people will merely cancel, rather than reschedule. The lack of urgency with testing can lead people into a false sense of security. Doctors are urging people in lower-risk states to begin rescheduling these appointments, as many of the ailments they identify can be treated. There is a high chance of survival if they are caught early, which is exactly why these screenings exist. But as health experts have pointed out, “it doesn’t take much to talk a person out of going in for a colonoscopy.”

Or as Dr. Donna-Marie Manasseh, the chief of breast surgery at Maimonides Medical Center, told CBS New York in September: “If you’re overdue for your mammogram, especially if you feel something or notice a change in the breast, it is critical that you do your mammogram to diagnose this. If something abnormal is seen, a procedure needs to be done, a biopsy is especially important to make sure that you do that biopsy and not wait for when we think the virus in the pandemic will abate.”

Additionally, there is concern that hospitals will be overburdened with the sudden surge in rescheduled appointments. Cancellations have now stretched over months, and if they are rescheduled—as doctors hope they will be—physicians will be hard-pressed to meet the demand. 

But doctors have been encouraging about coming in for cancer screenings (so is, somewhat randomly, Sheryl Crow).

“When I get concerned calls or texts from my family and friends, I tell them that I actually feel safest at the hospital,” Dr. Heather Greenwood, MD, a faculty member at UC-San Francisco, told UCSF.

Is it safe:

Sources: Mayo Clinic, Cancer.org, Stat News, Philadelphia Inquirer

Continue Learning