October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But October 2020 seems different than any other October that I, a Breast Imaging Specialist, have experienced in my lifetime. Rather than seeing the pink insignia of breast cancer awareness signs everywhere, the country continues to be in a state of partial lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is very concerning to me as someone who meets with breast cancer patients in her daily practice.
The irony is, more than 35,000 breast cancer diagnoses could be delayed, and an additional 5,200 women may die in the United States over the next decade because of delayed diagnosis and treatment from the earlier pause in care with lockdowns.
The importance of early cancer detection advocacy has never been more important.
Yet, while the world tuned into the vice-presidential debate this week, rather than a thoughtful discussion on how to ensure that cancer screenings and treatment will never be halted again or how to make it more affordable, the conversation directed at cancer patients was vitriolic.
Sadly, it was on par for political strategies that are focused on the goal of winning an election at any cost.
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris said: “If you have a preexisting condition—heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer—they’re coming for you.”
Health care is personal to every single American, which is why it is always at the forefront of any policy discussion.
Fear-mongering is also a common tactic: Vote for me and I will save your life, vote for the other person and you will die. But this sort of alarmist behavior while exploiting Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not only dishonest, it is less than dignified.
As Harris told cancer patients everywhere that the Trump administration would “come after them,” Vice President Pence also failed to counter the vitriol with facts; a missed opportunity to encourage Americans not to be afraid to seek medical care and cancer screenings.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many things to a screeching halt, including mammograms and most other non-emergency, but necessary, health care. While SARS-CoV-2 can pose a risk to your health, cancer does too, so we can’t trade one for the other.
As our country continues to re-open, health care providers nationwide are resuming mammograms and other services. Radiologists and other providers are following CDC and American College of Radiology® (ACR®) guidelines to protect patients as they re-offer cancer screenings, orthopedic exams and other previously-postponed care.
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For our part, we have all been smart to “play it safe” during the pandemic. However, if you are a woman age 40 and older, being cautious now means talking to your doctor about the mammogram you’ve been putting off or that was delayed by COVID-19.
Also, if you are a woman (or man) of any age with a change in your body, especially your breasts, please don’t put it off. I have diagnosed breast cancer in women ages 18 to 99 and in numerous men too, so don’t kid yourself that the new lump you are feeling is “nothing to worry about.” Please let your doctor decide if it warrants further investigation.
A doctor’s office can pose some risk. However, hospitals and physician offices have stepped up sterilization, spread out appointments to allow fewer people on-site, and taken many other steps to keep care as safe as possible.
So, here are some tips to keep in mind when rescheduling a mammogram or other needed care:
- Ask your doctor about COVID-safety protocols so you know what to expect when you get there.
- Discuss your individualized risks and care plan with your provider team, especially if you are elderly, have chronic health issues or are immuno-compromised.
- Take your temperature and wash your hands before leaving home. Wear a mask to the appointment. Wear gloves when necessary. Avoid touching your face, nose or eyes.
- Don’t show up (too) early, use automatic doors where possible, avoid touching surfaces and socially distance from others.
- Limit those who go with you to the appointment. Fewer people on site limits your exposure and that of others.
- Allow more time. Offices are spacing out appointments to thoroughly disinfect rooms and equipment. We are all in this together.
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Visiting the doctor can make you nervous – especially now. However, not rescheduling your mammogram now can allow cancers to remain hidden until they are more advanced and less treatable. Don’t let that happen.
Pandemic or not, mammography still saves lives. As we continue in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, ignoring the political fanfare, it’s time to get back to care — for ourselves and our families.