Alberta Cancer Foundation

Understanding Cancer Screening Best Practices

Illustration of Dr. Huiming Yang by Josianne Dufour.

While COVID-19 has changed our lifestyles, work and health services, it hasn’t changed the risk of cancer or the need for regular screening. Still, with restrictions coming and going, it’s hard to know what routine health practices are still available and which are not. Dr. Huiming Yang, the medical director of screening programs with Alberta Health Services, shares the newest information regarding cancer screening practices so you can stay safe and informed.                                                                                       

Q. Has cancer screening been impacted by restrictions due to COVID-19? And if so, how?

Since the pandemic started, cancer screening in Alberta has been significantly impacted. Initially, screenings were affected due to service interruptions, and then [from patients’] fear of coming to health-care settings for services and the possibility of virus transmission.

Q. Is it safe to get screened right now?

People should continue to follow public health measures, but all health-care settings are safe. Each clinic will have different protocols in place, so some may ask you to wait in the car before the appointment or have questions about any COVID-19 exposure history. So, necessary precautions are being taken even as measures are being lifted.

Q. Which types of cancer is it most important people get screened for?

Screening for breast cancer for women ages 50-74, cervical cancer for women 25-69 and colorectal cancer for women and men from 50-74 years of age are all strongly recommended.

Q. What are the risks if I delay my screening for another year?

Cancer screening is a preventative service. If people delay by a year, there will be a small increase in the likelihood of late detection of cancer.

Q. Are there any remote or home-based options for screening?

For colorectal cancer screening, we ask that people see a family doctor and then pick up a home FIT (fecal immunochemical test) kit from the lab. For breast cancer, we strongly discourage women from doing a self-breast exam regularly versus regularly screening. The reason is that evidence has shown [self-breast exams] cause more harm due to false positives. However, we do recommend women be ‘breast aware’ to know how their breasts look and feel normally.

Q. Does getting the COVID-19 vaccine affect the screening process or the timing of being screened?

After getting the COVID-19 vaccination, some reports say that some people have gotten enlarged lymph nodes in certain areas, particularly around the armpit. That may give a false positive result, but all radiologist physicians are being alerted to this side effect of the vaccine. We recommend not screening for breast cancer within four to six weeks of a vaccination, and when you do go, we ask that women report their vaccination to their radiologist. That way, the radiologist will consider the vaccine as a factor in any results. 

Q. What could be different in cancer screening now versus before the pandemic?

You may have to wait a little longer due to the increased volume of testing and backlog from COVID-19, as well as the extra cleaning protocols between screenings. Things may not be 100 per cent back to normal from before the pandemic. Particularly, what you can expect may take longer is the wait for a follow-up after the initial screening.