Screening Plays a Crucial Role in Cancer Prevention Efforts

Putting off a routine medical examination for a few months might seem, to many, as routine as the examination itself. Before COVID-19, many adults delayed checkups due to time constraints, financial priorities, and the timing of insurance plan renewals.

During the height of the pandemic, many patients found it difficult to get screened at all. Nearly 10 million screenings were missed between January and July 2020 while clinics shut down or postponed patients’ appointments and medical resources were diverted to COVID-19.

For patient advocate Wenora Johnson, such a delay had high stakes. Johnson has a genetic condition called Lynch syndrome, which increases her risk of several types of cancer. Having already overcome colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, and basal cell carcinoma, she undergoes enhanced cancer screening, including an annual colonoscopy. Due to COVID-19, her colonoscopy in 2020 was delayed by four months. When it was finally completed, the doctors found three precancerous polyps—potential precursors to colorectal cancer. 

Wenora Johnson

“If I had chosen to ignore having this yearly colonoscopy and decided to do it the following year, I probably would be looking at a tumor that would need another surgery and chemotherapy treatment all over again,” Johnson said. 

Johnson shared her story as part of the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research And Patient Care, published February 9. The report found that Johnson’s experience was not unique—significant decreases in cancer screening and diagnosis were observed worldwide in 2020 and 2021, and several studies have predicted a subsequent increase in cancer mortality in the coming years. 

“[My experience] really brought home to me the effects of what COVID has done,” Johnson said. “It made me realize just how important these scans are—they’re lifesaving for me.” 

How is the field of cancer prevention prepared to progress in spite of these setbacks? In January, we asked cancer prevention experts Avrum Spira, MD, deputy editor of Cancer Prevention Research, and Michael Pollak, MD, co-editor-in-chief of Cancer Discovery, about their predictions for 2022. As part of our annual Experts’ Forecast post, Spira and Pollak explained that screening is just one of many important facets of a comprehensive cancer prevention program. In honor of National Cancer Prevention Month, learn more by reading the full section on prevention.