Breast cancer screening delays during the pandemic

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, we wanted to catch up with doctor, professor, and cancer survivor Michelle Tollefson.

She shared her breast cancer journey with us last year. Her cancer was found just one year after she had a perfectly normal mammogram. A lump was found so close to her chest wall that it couldn’t be felt with a normal breast exam.

9Health Expert, Dr. Payal Kohli, explains that during the pandemic, many have avoided screenings such as mammograms. She talked with Dr. Tollefson about the importance of not delaying your preventive screenings.

Screening is an important prevention tool but early on during the COVID-19 pandemic breast cancer screening tests, including mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs, were delayed or canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two studies.

Many hospitals and other healthcare facilities delayed or canceled elective procedures beginning in March 2020. Elective procedures included anything that didn’t need to be done to save someone’s life. Breast cancer screening was considered an elective procedure, “Of breast cancer survivors, 22% reported delays in their annual screenings that they needed, even after they survived breast cancer, and of those who had never had breast cancer before 31.5% of people reported delays getting their timely mammograms. And at one point during the pandemic there was a 54-fold decrease in diagnostic screening mammograms,” Kohli explained.

As time has passed during the pandemic, doctors have seen how protective procedures, such as wearing a face mask, washing your hands, maintaining physical distancing, and avoiding gathering with people in a group, have helped slow the spread of the virus. So now many facilities are once again offering breast cancer screening. If your annual mammogram was delayed, you are urged to call and reschedule.

“I feel so fortunate that I caught it early and I want to encourage everyone to go get your mammograms,” As a mom of three children, it’s hard for Dr. Tollefson to think about what could’ve happened if she hadn’t gotten her annual mammogram, “I wasn’t able to feel a distinctive lump because of its position right against the chest wall. So, if I had waited until it was large enough for me to feel or until I started to have symptoms, the chance of me having metastatic disease would’ve been much higher and my long-term diagnosis would’ve been much poorer. I want to be around to see my kids grow old,” Tollefson added.

For women that are of average risk, meaning no strong family history, the American Cancer Society says they should start getting annual screening mammograms at the age of 40. Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, but many women with breast cancer don’t experience any symptoms.

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