SALT LAKE CITY — The National Cancer Institute estimates more than 10,000 people may die from otherwise preventable cancers because of delayed screening during the COVID-19 pandemic. One Utah man is grateful he went in for colon screening when he noticed he wasn't feeling well.
Last year, Ric Rogers, who typically lives an active lifestyle, wasn't feeling like himself.
"I was playing basketball in the morning with some friends and had some older guys that were just beating me up and down the court," he said "I was thinking, 'Man, I'm getting old fast if I can't keep up with these 60-year-old guys,' and then I almost passed out playing basketball."
That's when he realized he needed to see a doctor. Rogers thought he had anemia which seemed abnormal for a man, but thought his symptoms were strange enough to get help.
"I'm usually the Superman type — you don't go to the doctor unless they absolutely have to," he described.
He's grateful he did. At just 39 years old, he was diagnosed with anemia and with colon cancer.
"It was 10 or 11 polyps and a tumor about the size of a golf ball," he said. "You hear that Stage 3 diagnosis — that was really scary to get."
Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Mark Lewis, an oncologist at Intermountain Medical Center, says younger people are not immune.
"One in 7 of my patients with colon cancer is under the age of 50," he said. Of those, Lewis says only 20% have a family history of colon cancer.
That's why Lewis says colonoscopy screening is critical, especially during the pandemic. Compared to other regular health screenings, colonoscopy is unique.
"Colonoscopy, however, not just identifies the problem, (but) it could potentially fix the problem because if you go in and you clip a polyp that otherwise was going to grow in with cancer, you're actually intervening on the process," he explained.
Lewis worries that if people delay their regular screening during the pandemic, they will suffer the consequences later.
"Because otherwise, I think, unfortunately, there's going to be an indirect toll from COVID, which is not deaths from the coronavirus, but deaths from other causes that given normal circumstances we could have prevented," Lewis explained.
In October, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended people of average risk to start screening at age 45 instead of 50.
"That is a huge shift," Lewis said. "That almost immediately qualifies something like 20 million Americans for screening."
Lewis believes this will benefit the public at large. "Almost everybody will merit screening no later than 45," he said.
He says unexplained weight loss, fatigue, or a change in bowel habits like blood in stool could indicate something is wrong.
"So when you're losing weight, unintentionally, meaning there's no change in your diet, (or) there's no change in your exercise pattern, that unfortunately makes us worry that there's some hidden source of caloric output," he said. "You could be bleeding daily and lose over a liter of blood in just a little bit over a month and not even know it."
After Rogers' diagnosis, his siblings within 10 years of him and parents were also screened. He said some of them did have precancerous polyps.
"My testing led to them being tested younger than they normally would have, which kind of prevented them from having issues," he said.
Although Rogers wasn't aware of a family history of colon cancer in his family before his diagnosis, he is forging the way for his posterity to hopefully stay healthy.
"It's one of those things where we didn't have history, but in order for there to be history, there's got to be someone that's the first and that was me," he said. "Now all my children will be tested a little bit younger."
Lewis encourages people who do have a family history of colon cancer to get screened at least 10 years earlier than the age of the individual who was affected by the disease. He says some families are just more prone to polyp development.
In addition to colonoscopy, Lewis says there are other testing resources available, although they are not designed to entirely replace colonoscopy screening. He says the Cologuard is a yearly test which examines a stool sample for DNA that would indicate advanced polyp growth or cancer.
While Rogers admits the prep for a colonoscopy isn't always fun, he says it's worth it. "Don't be a wimp, just do it. It's not that bad," he said.
He also encourages people to not disregard new symptoms. "Pay attention to your body," he said. Rogers is glad he was attentive and persistent in expressing his concerns with his primary care physician.
Today Rogers is healthy and feels blessed to be alive to enjoy life with his wife and four young kids. "I feel really blessed that at this point I can say I've got a clean bill of health," he said. "It's helped me to recognize and enjoy and appreciate every moment that I have."
He celebrated his remission by going to Disneyland with his family before the pandemic began.
Lewis says Intermountain clinics are taking great measures to ensure the safety of their patients, like wearing personal protective equipment and spacing out appointments. "We also are exquisitely careful to clean all the surfaces in our exam rooms between patients," Lewis said.