This is Cancer Screen Week, so it’s a good time to talk about the importance of following all the appropriate guidelines for mammograms, colonoscopies and other routine tests that detect cancer.
It’s also a great time to talk about some exciting developments on the horizon that will allow us to detect a number of cancers for which there are currently no screening tests available.
First the bad news: One of the big issues during the COVID-19 crisis has been a serious lapse in routine cancer screenings.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal in October, one large insurer reported nearly 1 million fewer mammograms, colorectal and cervical cancer screenings during the first eight months of 2020 compared to 2019. During the first week in April, the number of mammograms for this company’s beneficiaries dropped a staggering 95 percent compared to figures from 2019.
While the delay in screenings is understandable, the impact on cancer outcomes could be severe. Delays in screening simply translate to delays in diagnosis. It may be some time before we know the full effect, but initial reports show that patients are still being diagnosed this year with cancer – but more frequently, their diagnosis is coming when the disease is more advanced and more difficult to treat.
Since age is the most important overall risk factor for cancer, these screenings are of particular concern for our seniors. The median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years, and one-quarter of new cancer cases are diagnosed in people between the ages of 65 and 76, according to the National Cancer Institute.
While we are all trying to stay home and stay safe this year, seniors simply can’t afford to miss screenings that can detect cancer in its earliest stages. These life-saving tests can’t wait, even for a pandemic.
Now for the good news: Advances in research are on the verge of providing an easy way to test for multiple cancers with a single blood test.
A number of these multi-cancer blood tests are in development and will be available in coming years. They won’t replace the screening tests we already have for breast, colorectal, cervical, prostate and lung cancer, but they will greatly expand the ability to detect other cancers that currently have no screening tests available. Better yet, they can detect these cancers at earlier stages, before patients show symptoms.
The other good news is that Congress is already taking steps to make sure that seniors will have access to these tests.
If Congress does not act, it could take many years for these new tests to be covered by Medicare. But the bipartisan Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act will ensure Medicare beneficiaries will have access to this exciting breakthrough in cancer screening technology as soon as it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
This Cancer Screen Week, the basic message is this: Early detection matters. Cancer screenings can’t wait – not for a pandemic and not for Medicare to adapt to new advances in multi-cancer blood screening technology.