Staff members monitor patients in a corridor of Stormont Vail Heath Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 in Topeka, Kan. Credit: Evert Nelson / The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP

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Cheryl Tucker is the executive director of the Maine Cancer Foundation. Tracey Weisberg is a physician at New England Cancer Specialists and a Maine Cancer Foundation board member.

These days, medical statistics have become commonplace in our daily conversations — they’ve taken the place of weather, fishing, black flies, not getting there from here, and other Maine-isms. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us all aware of how many cases Maine has and where and how best to prevent the spread of the virus.

As much as we’d all like to return to talking about these ordinary things that make our state the great place it is, there are a few more statistics that we can’t ignore: one in three Mainers will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime; cancer is the leading cause of death in the state; and Maine will see over 8,000 new cancer cases in 2020, according to American Cancer Society estimates. These numbers are frightening enough on their own; the COVID-19 pandemic may make them even more alarming.

There are concerns nationally that months of deferred cancer screenings or delayed treatments due to COVID-19 could reverse the U.S. streak in improved cancer mortality that has lasted more than 25 years.

These trends predict that the pandemic will have a potential 10% increase in cancer deaths from breast and colon cancer alone — diseases that are often treated effectively when caught at an early stage.

Why this significant increase in the possible death rate and can we prevent it?

When the pandemic response began, medical providers rightfully prioritized emergency care and COVID-19 testing and treatment so that staff and facilities could safely handle the influx of patients. Routine appointments and screenings were put on hold while our medical centers and practices figured out the best way to ensure the health and safety of everyone. A study by Epic Health Research Network, a medical records company, found that in March 2020, routine screenings for breast, cervical, and colon cancer decreased by 86 percent to 94 percent compared to the average number of screening appointments that occurred monthly from Jan. 1, 2017 through Jan. 19, 2020.

Regular cancer screenings can prevent one-third of cancer deaths if the disease is diagnosed and caught early. These screenings are a critical link in increasing cancer survival rates for many types of cancer.

Our state has one of the highest incidences of cancer per capita in New England. As we all work together to control the coronavirus, we must pay attention to cancer. Maine’s medical facilities have worked diligently to secure appropriate equipment and protective gear, altered their office spaces and processes to physically distance, adapted to a new reality, and kept everyone as safe as possible. It is now time to contact your doctor to have a conversation about what cancer screenings are right for you and get them scheduled.

Your next medical appointment may not look like your last one. You may be able to do a telemedicine visit and consult with your doctor or nurse over your computer or phone. You may be able to take a sample for testing from the comfort of your home. Some screenings are necessary to do in-person and you may not be able to schedule something for a few weeks — but calling your doctor and talking with them about your needs and concerns will get the ball rolling and determine what arrangement works best for your individual situation.

The most important thing is to talk with your health care provider and make an appointment to get appropriate cancer screening.

Cancer doesn’t take a break even for a global pandemic — and it’s up to each of us to make sure we are being diligent with our health care.

If you are a cancer patient or survivor, it is critical that you talk with your doctor about appropriate follow-up, monitoring and screenings. We cannot afford to ignore taking care of ourselves and scheduling our cancer screenings, even amidst so many other stressors in our lives.