While routine cancer screenings dropped significantly during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals throughout the UM Cancer Network are working to ensure patients and physicians understand they can still be done safely and effectively.

Between March and early June 2020, breast and cervical cancer screenings decreased nationwide by 94 percent, while colorectal cancer screenings were down by 86 percent, said Kimberly Wyn Schlesinger, MD, medical director of the Cancer Institute at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

“When the lockdown first happened, everything shut down,” Dr. Schlesinger said. “Offices have generally re-opened but with social distancing, it limits the number of folks that can be in a small space at one point in time.”

Some patients were also not comfortable coming into a doctor’s office or hospital, she said.

Throughout the past year, UM Cancer Network hospitals and physicians have taken several steps to keep patients safe and encourage screenings when needed, Dr. Schlesinger said.

“Thought leaders in the oncology field really sat down and looked at the data,” she said. “There is some leeway in terms of screening, particularly for the breast cancer population. For the average-risk woman, the screening mammogram doesn’t have to be on the same day each year.”

That means if scheduling delays lead an average-risk woman to schedule her routine mammogram three months after her screening due date, it’s OK. Just be sure to take precautions at the appointment, such as wearing a mask, she said.

Physicians and nurses are also conducting telemedicine visits and providing at-home screening tests to patients with an average risk of colorectal cancer.

“We need to remain vigilant in scheduling these tests,” she said. “We are expecting that there’s going to be a stage migration as a result of these delays. For example, the idea with breast cancer screening is that you identify cancers at an earlier point in time when they’re smaller. If you delay screening, then presumably something that might be caught at one centimeter may not be caught until it’s two centimeters or larger or with nodal involvement.”

The UM Cancer Network’s multidisciplinary approach ensures patients receive comprehensive care at all times – even during a pandemic, Dr. Schlesinger said.

“For better or for worse, COVID is our reality for the indefinite future,” she said. “We really need to channel to our patients that it is safe, and it is important to do all that you can to maintain your health. That includes routine cancer screening.”

“As a network, we've been very intentional to be sure that same level of services are provided across the system,” she added. “Every cancer center has the same level of commitment to the current patients, and to the patients they’re going to see down the line.”