Why It Can’t Wait: The Importance of Colorectal Cancer Screenings

Young doctor using a digital tablet during a consultation with a woman

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many things in our lives, including elective medical procedures. Many people are putting off these procedures, which has caused a troubling decline in cancer screenings, including colorectal cancer screenings. But I’m here to remind you that it’s still safe to get your colorectal cancer screening during the pandemic, and that it’s as important as ever.

The Key to Early Detection

The American Cancer Society reports that colorectal cancer (both colon and rectal cancer) is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and in women.

And while that may be scary to read, the good news is that if it’s detected early, it’s highly treatable. There are different ways to detect colorectal cancer. One method is the colonoscopy. The benefits of a colonoscopy are twofold: it catches cancer early, which improves prognoses, and it prevents cancer from developing with the removal of polyps. That’s why it’s still important to get your recommended screenings — even during a pandemic. You should talk to your health care provider about which screening is right for you.

Improved Screenings

Many of us have heard colonoscopy stories and may have preconceived notions about what the procedure does — and doesn’t — entail. But the colonoscopy gets a bad rap. Since the 1980s, the procedure has improved in notable ways. For example, nowadays colonoscopies are an outpatient procedure and take less than an hour. There is light sedation and the patient is asleep the entire time, so he or she doesn’t feel any pain or discomfort. In fact, most people can still work the day before a colonoscopy and start the procedure prep the afternoon or evening before.

The other good news is that many Independence Blue Cross members have $0 cost-sharing for preventive colonoscopies, so check your benefits to see if this applies. And remember, in most instances, once you get a clean colonoscopy, you don’t have to get one for another 10 years.

Risk Factors You Can Control

Although there’s no surefire way to prevent colorectal cancer, there are things that you can do to lower your risk. Diet, exercise, alcohol use, and smoking are all risk factors that can impact your chances of developing colorectal cancer.

Luckily, the recommendations for reducing your risk — maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, eat a diet heavy on fruits and veggies, quit smoking, and use alcohol in moderation — are in line with recommendations for an overall healthy lifestyle (i.e., this is a lifestyle to work towards in general).

Other Risk Factors

There are certain factors — including family history, conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and race/ethnicity — that may put you at an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

Although the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that colorectal cancer screening begins at age 50, the recommendation is under review. So, talk to your doctor about your risks, and if you’d be a candidate for earlier screening (especially if you have any of the risk factors mentioned above).

Screenings During the Pandemic

If you’re still unsure about cancer screenings during the pandemic, it may be helpful to see how your provider is handling these appointments. For example, you should be able to do any prescreening questions on the phone or online before the procedure, masks should be worn by patients and providers alike, and appointments should be spaced out appropriately so that there is enough time and distance between appointments.

At this point of the pandemic, COVID-19 safety protocol has likely become part of your provider’s everyday normal routine, but if you have any questions, talk to your provider about your concerns.

Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares

About Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares

Dr. Nuria Lopez-Pajares joined Independence Blue Cross in 2018 after practicing primary care and population health for 18 years. With a background in public health and preventive medicine, she is now a medical director involved in utilization management, case management, and quality improvement. What she loves about this job is the opportunity to put prevention into practice and educate.