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LeVar Burton (pictured above) is encouraging people who have been avoiding routine medical care like cancer screenings and annual physicals during the pandemic, to make appointments with the doctor to make sure they stay on top of their health. Emily Berl for The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • Actor and icon LeVar Burton is encouraging people to make appointments with their doctor to get life-saving health screenings they might have put on the back burner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • An estimated 41 percent of adults in the United States delayed or avoided medical care shortly after the pandemic began.
  • Experts are concerned that pandemic-era screening delays for various types of cancer will account for excess deaths over the next decade unless changes are made.

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Actor, director and popular television host LeVar Burton recalls watching his mother deal with what he calls a “cascading effect of conditions” before her death. Burton’s mother lived with diabetes and heart disease and he saw her “vitality sort of begin to ebb away,” missing needed appointments with healthcare professionals she wasn’t always in contact with enough.

“I was processing — as we do when we face a loss like that in our lives — I came to a conclusion that had she been of the mind to really make those [healthcare] visits with her team a priority, it would have given her not only more time, but a better quality of life at the end,” Burton told Healthline.

Burton’s memories of his mother and her health struggles have been on his mind a lot lately as he reflects back on the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons he’s drawn about his own approach to his overall health and wellbeing.

Today, Burton is leveraging his celebrity as an iconic actor of “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame and celebrated children’s TV host of “Reading Rainbow” to remind people to prioritize their health and get back to their doctors’ offices.

The goal is to make sure people get back to some of the needed, life-saving health screenings they might have put on the back burner during a year-and-a-half of shelter-at-home orders and COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I think at the end of the day, we all have to decide to put our life vests on before we try and help others, and I’m just going to point out that I am at an age in my life where I’m really looking at my responsibility to the people around me and how staying as healthy as I can is an integral part of that,” Burton added.

“One of the takeaways from the COVID lockdown for me was the need and necessity to take care of myself and I felt I was on a trajectory that was unsustainable in terms of the pace at which I was living,” he explained. “Lockdown was an opportunity for me to really look at my life and make some hard decisions about the quality of life that I wanted to enjoy going forward.”

Burton, who has been in the news a lot lately as a fan favorite to permanently host “Jeopardy,” is speaking out as part of “You Have To Go To Know,” an awareness campaign from Incyte Corporation to spotlight the need to get screened and treated for myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), rare and chronic blood cancers.

Burton doesn’t just want to shed light on MPNs solely, but also remind people to be their own best health advocate.

Serious conditions like cancer don’t wait for pandemic stay-at-home orders to lift. They require you to be vigilant and be in touch with your healthcare professionals.

For his part, while he was reflecting on these questions about personal health advocacy during the pandemic, Burton said he had to look in the mirror and confront the fact that he was operating like “a typical male who doesn’t think that going to the doctors regularly is a normal part of life.”

He compared himself to his wife who is “much more proactive” about going to the doctors. Beyond that, he recalled how he served as one of his mother’s “primary advocates” for her healthcare in her later years.

So, the question remained, why wasn’t he performing that role for himself?

Burton’s approach to his own healthcare isn’t unusual.

By June 30, 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that an estimated 41 percent of adults in the United States “delayed or avoided medical care.” This included 12 percent of people for urgent care and 32 percent of people for routine care.

Even before COVID-19, there have been plenty of reports of U.S. men foregoing needed medical appointments.

The implications of putting off such serious medical care are severe, especially when it comes to screenings for serious health concerns like cancer.

Dr. Gaby Hobbs, the clinical director of leukemia service at Mass General Cancer Center, is a specialist in the care and treatment of people with MPNs. Hobbs, who is also part of the same health campaign as Burton, said it was frustrating at the start of the pandemic to figure out how best to safely interact with patients in medical settings.

Early on, medical professionals shared the same confusion as their patients about what was the safest approach for having people come into hospitals and clinics. As more became known about the pandemic, Hobbs said a big task she and her colleagues faced was reassuring people that the “hospital is a safe place,” where staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

In fact, she stressed that a hospital or a clinic might be one of the safest places you could be during a health crisis like this one.

Hobbs said one of her big fears at the start of the pandemic was the fact that because she couldn’t physically see a lot of her patients. Because many weren’t coming in for routine checkups, they weren’t receiving diagnoses they needed and their symptoms weren’t being monitored.

“I’m an MPN doctor, and many of my patients have symptoms that maybe, previously, they would have sought care for, but now they were postponing appointments,” she said. “It was devastating to see a lot of patients maybe presenting with disease that would have been identified earlier.”

Dr. Timothy Quinn, a family medicine practitioner and medical director of Quinn Healthcare, echoed many of Hobbs’s comments. Quinn, a physician based in the Metro Jackson community of Ridgeland, Mississippi, said that a major problem during the pandemic has been older people and individuals with weakened immune systems opting out of necessary medical appointments due to justifiably practicing extreme caution to avoid COVID-19.

While they were right to be worried about their health during a pandemic, he said it put many in a particularly vulnerable position of not receiving the care they needed.

“For these patients, we identified a separate entrance just so they will feel safe and be safer, but even with these kinds of precautionary measures that we put in place, there are a lot of no-shows for appointments,” said Quinn, who is not affiliated with the new awareness campaign.

Both Quinn and Hobbs said that one big remedy for people wary of in-person meetings has been the rise of telehealth services. Now, some preliminary appointments and screenings can be performed from home, limiting the number of trips to a doctor’s office.

Unfortunately, not all medical procedures can be done at home. Blood tests and imaging screenings, for instance, need to be done at a healthcare facility.

That being said, Quinn said this era has seen the embrace of some healthcare agencies that employ home health nurses who can collect blood work and record vital signs from the comfort of someone’s living room.

As with Hobbs and her emphasis on MPN, Quinn said a big concern on his mind is people missing needed screenings for cancers like colorectal cancer.

“People are missing the opportunity to be diagnosed early. With the majority of cancers that are diagnosed early, you just have a phenomenally better chance of a better outcome,” he added.

Quinn said that when it comes to colorectal cancer in particular, the embrace of at-home, FDA-approved Cologuard tests are particularly pandemic-era friendly, and many of the patients he sees find them to be less invasive than other kinds of colorectal cancer tests.

Burton, Hobbs, and Quinn are all in agreement that it’s vital for people to prioritize having open discussions with their medical professionals, especially now while a pandemic continues to stretch and stress the limits of our healthcare system.

An editorial in Science cites that pandemic-era screening delays will account for 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancers over the next decade. Burton and Quinn said this can’t be the trajectory we head toward as a society. It’s a public health emergency all on its own.

“These conditions won’t go away without treatment,” Hobbs added. “Many people are afraid to seek care, they think ‘if I ignore it, it’s just going to go away without treatment.’ You have to go in order to know, even though it may seem terrifying. Knowledge is power.”

She stressed that so much has changed in medicine, especially the field of oncology, that by not seeing your medical professional, you’re denying yourself “a potentially really helpful treatment” that could improve your life — or even save it.

Quinn said another problem we’re facing right now is who has access to needed care. He said people of color, especially Black Americans, face barriers to accessing the kinds of preventive screenings they need.

“Being an African American physician, I have the opportunity to really connect with a lot of patients here in Mississippi who are African American,” he said. “It’s a very tight state — you know this person who knows that person — so I have an opportunity here to do a lot of advocacy work.”

A big part of this involves pushing against damaging misinformation about the necessity and safety of cancer screenings. One he heard recently was that a “mammogram will kill me.”

Another issue is reaching people who occupy socioeconomically precarious positions in our society, many of whom are people of color and who might not have ready access to insurance coverage or who might be physically unable to get to a clinic or hospital quickly.

“It’s well documented in multiple sources that African Americans are hard hit as far as having high mortality rates from all forms of cancer,” Quinn said. “Basically, they’re hit the hardest, they’re hit number one. A lot of it deals with socioeconomic scenarios in the African American community, a lack of vital information. There’s a lot of information that just isn’t true, which is preventing screenings that can be so life saving for members of the African American community.”

Burton isn’t letting himself off the hook.

“This has been an opportunity to hold myself accountable for the responsibility of being in as good of shape as I can be and be available to do the work that I love doing, and making the contributions I feel I’m able to make,” he said. “It’s not fair out of ego to discount the need and necessity to look after ourselves. It’s irresponsible.”

Burton said one thing he encourages is people really build their own healthcare team. He said he has a nephrologist (he’s a kidney donor) and a cardiologist on-call, given his family history of heart disease, in addition to his general practitioner, his dentist, and optometrist.

“These are people I charge with and trust to help me take good care of myself and make sure I’m in good working order and condition,” Burton added. “Just go to the doctor and I know there are challenges these days and we have to take those challenges into account and mitigate them as best as we are able and work with our healthcare professionals in terms of getting the care and eyes on what we need.”