'Cancer won't wait': Colorectal cancer survivor urges others to make screenings a priority

CHICAGO (WLS) -- March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and while the disease is highly treatable if caught early, doctors say the pandemic has slowed down these cancer screenings.

As COVID-19 gripped the country, screenings for colorectal cancer plummeted, leaving physicians concerned that their patients were putting off getting life-saving preventive care.

RELATED: Colon cancer screenings drop during COVID-19 pandemic, despite awareness after Chadwick Boseman's death

"The economics, the finances and the fear has kept people focusing on other things and they forgot that there are important things you have to do in a timely manner, said Dr. Mohammad Ali Abbass, a surgeon at Northwestern Medicine.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death, yet, Dr. Abbass said it's highly treatable and preventable with screening and early diagnosis.

However, during the first surge in COVID cases last year, screenings in Chicago came to a near standstill.

EMBED More News Videos

Colon cancer screenings have dropped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite more awareness after actor Chadwick Boseman's death.

"We didn't understand the virus and how to deal with it," Dr. Abbass said. "We didn't know if it was safe even to do the colonoscopies and now we know we can take precautions and be careful."

Colorectal cancer was not on Melissa Peña's radar until she was pregnant with her third child and concerned about persistent blood in her stool.

A screening found a tumor and it was successfully treated with chemotherapy before she gave birth.

RELATED: Convincing new evidence about benefits of colonoscopy

"I would have never guessed that's what it was," Peña said. "I didn't have a family history of it, so for me to be diagnosed is a huge surprise for me."

Peña was just 32 at the time, but now she'll get screened every five years for the rest of her life.

She said not making self-care a priority can mean the difference between life and death.

"Cancer won't wait," Peña said. "You can't wait for this pandemic to be over because cancer won't wait."

The American Cancer Society recommends that screenings begin at age 45 for people considered average risk, meaning people who do not have a family history of colorectal cancer.

The video featured is from a previous report.
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.