March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Franciscan Health is joining others in urging patients to schedule the screenings that they may have delayed due to the pandemic.
According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, colon cancer screenings dropped roughly 90 percent and diagnoses fell by 32 percent at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Epic Health Research Network estimated 95,000 missed screenings in the U.S. during the three months from mid-March to mid-June 2020. The missed screenings mean precious time lost for treatment. Studies show more than 60 percent of colon cancer deaths could be prevented with screening.
The American Cancer Society guidelines recommend screenings starting at age 45. In 2020, a new Indiana law required insurance companies to cover colonoscopies at age 45 instead of the previously recommended 50.
Denise Milenkovic, 43, was diagnosed with colon cancer the week before Christmas 2019 and speaks from experience about the importance of cancer screenings.
She was having abdominal pain, and a CT scan revealed a tumor in her colon. A colonoscopy confirmed the tumor was cancerous. “Something didn’t feel right, and I decided to go in and that’s how they caught it,” she said.
The early intervention caught Denise’s cancer when it was stage 2. After radiation treatment and chemotherapy at the Franciscan Health Cancer Center Munster, she underwent cancer surgery at Franciscan Health Dyer in April 2020. After further chemotherapy and testing, she is currently cancer free.
When she first went in for her pain, Denise had no idea the diagnosis would be cancer. “That didn’t cross my mind, and when they told us it was like a bad dream,” she said. Her advice to others? “No matter what you feel, go have it checked out.”
Colorectal cancer is diagnosed after cancerous cells, often beginning as precancerous polyps, are found in the large intestine. Polyps are usually diagnosed for the possibility of cancer during a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. A sigmoidoscopy allows the physician to examine the last 6 to 8 inches of the colon, usually in an office setting. A colonoscopy allows the physician to use a flexible endoscope to examine the entire colon and remove any polyps.
While age and family history of colorectal cancer and polyps place people at greater risk for colon cancer, risk factors also include a history of other cancers, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. As many as one in five people who develop colorectal cancer have other family members who have had it. Those with a family history of polyps, colorectal cancer, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome should talk with their doctor about when they should begin screening or if they might benefit from cancer genetic testing.
For additional information and to schedule a colonoscopy or take a colon risk assessment, go online at FranciscanHealth.org/ColonCare.