Keep Your Doctor Visits Routine
Regular screenings can prevent life-threatening problems later on.
Written by John Ferrari
The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, but that doesn’t mean we cannot continue to take care our our everyday health issues. As medical professionals have pointed out, getting the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t make you immortal. Now is the time to address any health needs you may have put off for the past year, starting with routine screenings and examinations.
Why? Because routine care can keep small issues from turning into big problems. “Regular visits with your primary care physician are the best way to catch problems that could be creeping up,” explains internal medicine and primary care physician Rumi Cader, MD. “We don’t want you to have to see an oncologist with late-stage disease. If we catch malignancy early on, chances for a cure are much greater.”
When COVID-19 hit Southern California, “there was a huge drop-off in outpatient visits—especially mammograms, colonoscopies and screenings for osteoporosis,” Dr. Cader says. Based on your age and family history, those screenings may not need to be conducted every year. Others are routine annual checks, including tests for cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and pelvic exams for women. Together these screenings cover the most common diseases affecting Americans—and the leading causes of death.
Torrance Memorial also emphasizes preventive tests for individuals with risk factors, including anemia and lung cancer screenings. Consider diabetes. “If we catch someone in a prediabetic state, we can prevent them from developing diabetes with diet and lifestyle changes, not medications,” Dr. Cader says.
Screenings for colorectal, breast and cervical cancer are similarly beneficial, says oncologist Thomas Lowe, MD. “Colonoscopies are highly effective because they detect polyps before they turn into cancer,” he explains.
Those polyps can be removed during the colonoscopy, preventing a likely cancer from developing—important because young-age colorectal cancer—younger than age 50—is one of the few types of cancer increasing in incidence (along with nonalcoholic liver cancer and human papillomavirus-related cancers). To address this, the recommended initial screening age for colonoscopies was recently lowered from 50 to 45.
Even before the pandemic, Dr. Lowe says, only 60% of individuals recommended to have colonoscopies did so—and the number of colonoscopies decreased 90% during the pandemic. The drop in colonoscopies and other preventive screenings during the pandemic was “unfortunately necessary,” he says, “but that has ramifications down the road,” including an estimated 10,000 extra cancer deaths due to delayed screenings.
Approximately 1 in 20 individuals will get colorectal cancer at some point during their life, Dr. Lowe says, and approximately one in seven women will get breast cancer. Both types of cancer have very high cure rates if they are caught early, through colonoscopies and mammograms.
“We are seeing more new cancers now,” Dr. Lowe says. “This suggests more people are coming in to take care of screenings they put off during the pandemic. This was a necessary consequence of the pandemic—having to push back care. Now is the time to get back on it, now that we’re well on the way to coming out of the pandemic—especially for those who are vaccinated. Our surgeons are going above and beyond to accommodate patients who did put off screenings.”
“Decreased preventive screening leads, unfortunately, to undiagnosed issues,” agrees Dr. Cader. For some patients, those issues may lead to health emergencies. The message is simple: Don’t put off medical care!
“Fear is understandable,” Dr. Cader says. “No one likes to think they’re having a stroke or heart attack, and during the pandemic people didn’t want to risk coming in to the emergency department and potentially being exposed to COVID-19. But we want that patient to come in, to call 911. A stroke or heart attack is much more dangerous than anything else.”
The symptoms of a stroke are clear: slurred speech and sudden weakness in the body. Similarly, sudden chest pain can signify a heart attack. Colorectal cancer may not entail a visit to Torrance Memorial’s emergency department, but some symptoms—including rectal bleeding, unexplained rapid weight loss or a change in bowel habits—mean you should see your primary care physician as soon as possible.
With COVID-19 cases decreasing, “people should be able to come in and take care of what they need to do,” Dr. Cader says. “Go to regular visits with your primary care physician. If you don’t have one, establish a relationship. We’re here to save lives, and we want to save lives.”
Rumi Cader, MD, is a primary care physician at Torrance Memorial Physician Network, 3701 Skypark Drive, Suite 100, Torrance, 310-378-2234. Thomas Lowe, MD, is an oncology specialist at Torrance Memorial Physician Network Cancer Care, 3285 Skypark Drive, Torrance, 310-750-3300.