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By Brad Bott

As Covid-19 cases decline again in Southern California, doctors are relieved to see patients resuming routine cancer screenings but continue to urge people to schedule those critical diagnostic tests.

At my organization’s hospitals in Southern California as well as those across the country, numbers of screenings are returning to 2019 rates, but these rates do not reflect the steep decline in the early months of the pandemic due to canceled or rescheduled appointments. Now that Covid-19 cases are waning and safety measures have been proven remarkably effective, cancer specialists urge their patients to get back on track.

That includes regularly scheduled mammograms to detect breast abnormalities such as cancerous tumors and colonoscopies to detect colon cancer. Both cancers potentially are deadly if care is delayed.

During the early days of the pandemic, some elective yet essential screenings were delayed to conserve protective equipment and to put in place safety measures that guard against spread of the virus. We have accomplished both and are confident it is safe to continue receiving routine health care. We also believe some people will die of cancer if they wait too long.

Our cancer care teams too often have seen the devastation on the faces of patients who either ignored symptoms or delayed recommended diagnostic screenings and found themselves in the fights of their lives. Their families are terrified. Their lives are upended. Their finances often drained.

Early detection, early intervention, early treatment. The last thing we want is a late stage cancer.

A study by Epic Health Research Network of 39 health systems with a total of 100 hospitals across 23 states found that in the very early days, routine screenings for breast, colon and cervical cancers dropped as much as 94 percent compared to relative January averages. But within months, methods were devised to safely manage patients’ care, separate from those under treatment for Covid-19. The numbers improved but not nearly enough.

Patients should ask questions, starting with asking providers what safety practices are in place and what the risks are of both undergoing screenings as scheduled or delaying care. If your risk is low, your provider might agree to postpone a short time – but promptly following up is essential.

Any oncologist would rather prevent than treat a cancer.

Brad Bott is executive director of the Providence Southern California Cancer and Research Clinical Institutes.