Missing the window: missed cancer screenings concern La Crosse medical experts

La Crosse doctors say medical facilities are safe and cancer screenings are necessary to prevent deaths
Cancer Screenings

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Early detection saves lives when it comes to cancer. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the screening process for people across the nation.

Isolation gives people a lot of time to themselves.

“I grew up in Galesville Wisconsin and I’ve been around here my entire life,” said Mariah Forster Olson, a La Crosse resident and cancer survivor.

Forster Olson knows the feeling of isolation all too well. She said sheltering at home isn’t something she gets used to. She’s learned to live with it.

“Isolation isn’t necessarily anything new for cancer patients,” she said.

Forster Olson can’t work a regular job because of the type of cancer she had. Instead, she works from home on her computer for several nonprofit organizations.

“I was diagnosed in 1980 at the age of one,” Forster Olson said.

Forster Olson had a tumor growing in several levels of her spine.

“Wrapped around part of my heart and pushed on my lungs taking up all most the entire right side of my chest,” she said.

She was on earth 365 days and Neuroblastoma had her in a fight for her life.

“Most children didn’t make it, and there were limited treatment options,” Forster Olson said. “I had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and what saved my life was probably an experimental chemotherapy protocol that I was on.”

She was treated for two years. She remembers when her battle was won.

“I got a cake and I thought it was just for my birthday, but it was actually for my birthday and my last chemotherapy treatment,” she said.

She was officially cancer-free at age eight.

“Neuroblastoma has a really high relapse rate,” she said.

Her experience left a permanent scar.

“I have around 100 different late effects or medical conditions from the cancer and the treatments,” Forster Olson said.

She’s had 47 surgeries and she’s at high risk for eight different types of secondary cancer.

“I have chronic excruciating pain in my back,” She said. “It gets worse as the day goes on, and that’s kind of tough to deal with.”

The CDC lists cancer as the second leading cause of death if the U.S. Doctors at Mayo Clinic and Gundersen health systems in La Crosse say the pandemic is making things worse.

“Cancers are being missed,” said Dr. Paula Gill, a medical oncologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.

Gundersen Cancer Center director Dr. Kurt Oettel said hospitals had to prioritize coronavirus patients.

“A lot of the screenings just almost came to a halt in some places,” Oettel said.

However, people are not showing up for routine screenings even after healthcare centers opened their doors.

“We basically lost three, four, five months of just routine screening for patients,” Oettel said.

Anxiety and fear of the virus is the main culprit. Prevent Cancer Foundation released a survey showing 35 percent of patients in the U.S. missed routine cancer screenings and 43 percent of Americans have missed routine medical appointments.

“There’s a lot of fear in our society right now,” Oettel said.

Oettel said the ramification of missing the window identifying cancer is death. Breast and colon cancers are at the top of the list.

“There’s an anticipated probably excess of 10,000 deaths that we would see, relative to those two cancers, sometime over the next two to five years,”

Gill said cancer research was another thing put on hold.

“Which is absolutely necessary,” Gill said. “What the National Cancer Institute and the [Food and Drug Administration] are trying to do is they’re trying to loosen some of the restrictions to make it easier to get cancer clinical trials going.”

Forster Olson said she fell victim to fear herself.

“I found a lesion on my skin that could possibly be skin cancer,” she said.

Radiation in the past puts her at risk for skin cancer.

“I was scared to go in and get it looked at,” she said. “I put it off for several months.

“I knew that the longer I let it go the worse it could be.”

Healthcare professionals are emploring people to see their doctor, and to avoid missing important checkups.

“It is safe to see your doctor,” Oettel said. “It’s safe to go to a healthcare facility; we are taking all of the precautions that we need to take.”

Fortunately, Forster Olson’s screening revealed a false alarm. At 41 years old, she has been cancer-free for 33 years.

The photos on her walls show there is always hope. She has built a life against all odds.

“Whether you get up on a day and it’s sunny out, there’s your positive,” Forster Olson said. “Just focus for that silver lining in any situation.”

In the midst of isolation, there are people working to ensure no one is left alone.

Forster Olson raises money for cancer research. For more information visit www.mariahscelebrationfundraiser.com