Millions Behind on Cancer Screenings, Childhood Vaccines Urged to Go to Doctor

"If cancer isn't detected early, it's much harder to treat."

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More than a third of adult Americans missed regular cancer screenings last year, and doctors say a lot of children and adolescents have fallen behind on childhood vaccinations too.

But now, as the pandemic shifts into new territory and summer approaches, physicians say it’s time for everyone to get back in the doctor’s office.

"There's no time to waste in getting in and getting those screenings done," Dr. John Deeken, president of the Inova Schar Cancer Institute, told News4. "If cancer isn't detected early, it's much harder to treat."

Deeken says delaying a screening by 6 months to a year can dramatically change the outlook for patients with early cancers.

"We expect that over ten thousand additional cancer deaths will be seen in the years ahead because of lost screenings last year due to both breast cancer screenings as well as colorectal screenings that weren't done when they should have been," he said.

A letter written by experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and MD Anderson Cancer Center advises women to schedule their annual mammograms either before or at least six weeks after getting vaccinated, due to swelling caused by the vaccine that may be mistake as a sign for cancer.

Most women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history and no symptoms – that’s why a mammogram is crucial when it comes to detecting the disease.

Timing is also important for mammograms if you're getting a COVID vaccine at around the same time.

Deeken advises women to alert their radiologist if they get the shot because it can cause enlarged lymph nodes, potentially throwing off mammogram results.

"We are asking some patients to delay a few weeks after their COVID shot if they are due for a regular mammogram, but not to delay much more than that, because, again, every month that goes by, a cancer has a chance to grow and become worse in terms of the prognosis," Deeken said.

It's not just cancer screenings that have been put on hold.

Independent experts at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are recommending changes to current lung cancer screening guidelines. If implemented, the recommendations will nearly double the number of people eligible for screening.

INOVA Health System saw a 55 percent drop in emergency care visits involving children during the height of the pandemic, although things have started to pick up in recent weeks.

Pediatricians are busy too. It’s a pace that will continue throughout the summer as new guidance from the CDC shows kids no longer need to wait two weeks in-between getting the COVID shot and other childhood vaccines.

"I think that offices will be very, very busy this summer with people trying to get caught up. And in addition, now that 12 and older can get the vaccine, trying to work that in as well for that bit with going back to camps that are reopening this summer with summer travel, sports, the time to think about that is now," Dr. Christina Johns with PM Pediatrics said.

"Now that we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and people have gotten vaccinated and our environments have gotten safer, we've got to get patients back to regular cancer screening to bend that curve back in the right direction," Dr. Deeken said.

Many hospitals including INOVA have expanded hours and their radiology centers are now open on the weekends to meet the need.

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