Experts urge everyone to keep up with cancer checks

Monday 24 August, 2020

With reports on reductions in new cancer diagnoses since COVID-19 worrying experts, Victorians are being urged to continue regular cancer screening to stay healthy and safe.

Cancer screening, such as mammograms, bowel testing kits and Pap tests, has led to huge improvements in early detection and cancer survival across Victoria over the last few decades, with improved outcomes for bowel, breast and cervical cancer.

But since the beginning of the pandemic, the three national screening programs for bowel, breast and cervical cancer have all been affected. BreastScreen Victoria services were closed for 7 weeks which saw the cancellation of around 25,000 appointments; there have been reports of a significant decline in cervical screening; and follow up procedures (colonoscopy) for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program have been impacted.

There has been a slow uptake as these services have resumed, with medical professionals reporting concern over people not attending important appointments. This has all led to a 30% decrease in cancer referrals since the beginning of the pandemic.

And, given the huge benefits cancer screening brings, health professionals have raised concerns.

“Since the start of the pandemic we have seen people not attending necessary appointments, translating to reduced patient consultations and screening at GPs and reduced referrals to cancer specialists for important testing,” Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said.

“It is safe to access screening and follow up care. However, it is not safe to delay a potential cancer diagnosis and its treatment.”

One-third of cancers can be prevented, and screening is one of the best ways to find cancer early, when successful treatment is more likely.

Since 1991, the incidence and mortality rate of cervical cancer has halved due to the National Cervical Screening Program; thanks largely to this and the ongoing support of people across the country, Australia is now on track to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem by 2035.

Similarly, more than 90% of bowel cancers can be treated successfully if caught early by screening, while mammographic screening has seen up to a 28% reduction in the risk of breast cancer for women aged 50–69.

These incredible results are thanks to these vital cancer prevention programs.

Kate Broun, Program Manager for Screening, Early Detection and Immunisation at Cancer Council Victoria, says the good news is that accessing these services is safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you're feeling well, you are able to leave your home for medical appointments while restrictions are in place.

“Health services are safe and screening services are undertaking extra hygiene practices," Ms Broun said.

“Cancer screening is the best way to find breast, bowel and cervical cancers early. If you are eligible for and have been invited to screen in any of the three programs, please do so. Early diagnosis increases survival.”

How screening is staying safe through COVID-19

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program sends bowel cancer screening kits in the mail to people in Australia aged between 50 and 74. These can be done easily in the comfort of your own home – and with all of us spending more time at home than ever, this is the perfect time to do the test.

BreastScreen Victoria offers free mammographic screening services to all Victorian women aged 50–74 every two years. While their services were temporarily paused to safeguard clients from the risk of COVID-19, they are now running and working to accommodate everyone due for a screening, putting a big emphasis on hygiene and safety. Initially they will be inviting clients who had their appointments cancelled to screen, so it’s best to wait for your invitation before contacting them.

Cervical cancer is another which is largely preventable through screening. It’s estimated that these tests prevent about 1,200 women in Australia from a diagnosis every year, while the number of people surviving a diagnosis continues to rise.

The National Cervical Screening Program invites women aged 25–74 to take part in cervical screening every five years. With health services undertaking extra hygiene practices to keep you safe, you shouldn’t put off cervical screening because of COVID-19. If you have received your invitation, speak to your GP or healthcare provider about making an appointment to screen.

These three wonderful national screening programs remain a safe and crucial part in taking us all towards a cancer free future. Screening saves lives, and it should not be avoided due to COVID-19.

“This pandemic has shown to us the importance of public health,” Mr Harper said. “It’s time to prioritise your health and make sure you are up to date with screening.”

“Earlier diagnosis increases the chance of successful treatment and means more people will survive into the future.”

If you would like more information on cancer screening and early detection, visit  www.cancervic.org.au/screening or call 13 11 20 today.