Pandemic-delayed cancer screenings mean increased rates of colon cancer

Mar 2, 2022, 4:00 PM | Updated: 4:07 pm
Intermountain Healthcare facilities upgrade landscaping...
Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on March 2, 2022. Photo credit: Paul Nelson/KSL NewsRadio.

MURRAY, Utah – Doctors with Intermountain Healthcare are seeing a troubling rise in the number of patients showing signs of colon cancer. They say people delayed screenings during the pandemic, and they’re calling on Utahns to come back for regular testing. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, doctors say colon cancer screenings have dropped by roughly 50%. Oncologist Dr. Mark Lewis said people may have been hesitant to get screened during the pandemic, or they may just be uncomfortable with the procedure. 

This drop in screenings may be connected to a 15% rise in the number of patients coming into his office with symptoms of stage 3-colon cancer.

“The cancer is spreading outside of the bowel and being passed in the lymph nodes,” said Lewis. “Almost inevitably, in those cases, I’m at least going to recommend chemotherapy.”

Lewis believes a lot of these cases could have been prevented if patients were screened earlier. He said this type of cancer is highly preventable if doctors find polyps early enough and remove them before they become cancerous.

“We think because screening has been less common, I’m actually seeing people at later and later stages,” Lewis said.

Doctors say the early symptoms of colon cancer may be hard to spot. They suggest people take a look at the shape of their stool to see if it’s becoming more narrow because of blockages in the colon. Also, if someone has stomach pain and is losing weight without dieting, they should be checked right away.

Dr. Nathan Merriman said some patients are coming into his office saying they’ve had blood in their stool for several months, but they assumed it would eventually go away.

“The assumption pops up that, ‘Oh, it could be hemorrhoids. It’s probably just hemorrhoids’,” Merriman said.

Doctors used to recommend yearly checkups for people over the age of 50 with normal health risks, but Merriman said that age was recently lowered to 45. He also said people need to have frank discussions with their families about any history of cancer.

“It’s really important to talk to family members about patterns of illness and disease and medical problems to understand what we’re at risk for.”

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Pandemic-delayed cancer screenings mean increased rates of colon cancer