COVID’s impact on breast screenings begins to wane

GOSHEN — Between the time that much of the country was either shut down completely or had limited operations and people’s wariness about getting out in public, the COVID-19 pandemic had an effect on women getting mammograms to screen for potential breast cancer.

Alyssa Yoder nurse practitioner at The Retreat Women’s Health Center, Goshen Health, said the center was shut down from mid-March to early May of 2020.

“At that time imaging was only being done of patients with breast issues,” she said. “No screening or diagnostics of previous breast cancer patients were being performed at that time.”

Yoder said even after they fully reopened some patients, “weren’t coming, so it did affect a lot of people. For those who wait or pushed their mammograms off a year it could’ve had the potential to affect the outcome and severity of the diagnosis as well as the treatment recommendations.”

When it comes to breast cancer, the earlier the detection the better, according to Yoder. She said early detection helps with determining the course of treatment.

GUIDELINES AND SURVIVAL RATES

Yoder said general guidelines recommend breast screenings for women should begin at age 40.

“If they are at a super high risk, or there’s a family history or genetic mutations, they can get screened up to 20 years prior to the youngest family member’s diagnosis,” she explained. “So if mom got it at age 40, the daughter can be screened at 30.”

Yet it’s not recommended women be screened before age 30, according to Yoder. When asked if there’s an age where women may no longer need to get mammograms, Yoder said there is “no specific age that cuts off screening.”

She said one possibility may be if there’s less than 10-years life expectancy.

“I have patients in their 70s and 80s ask me and I tell them it’s up to them,” she said. “Some women want to go to their final year and that’s OK — there’s no cut off.

“Age itself is a risk factor for breast cancer — it increases with time — but (they) need to take into account if diagnosed would she want to pursue treatment? That’s up to the patient and provider.”

Yoder said research has shown there are 30-40% fewer deaths due to breast cancer among women screened with mammography than among those who do not undergo screening.

SCREENING INCREASING

When asked if women are still hesitant to come in for a mammogram, she replied, “Somewhat.”

Yoder said there are a couple of patients she hasn’t seen yet, but for the most part she said women “are coming around to the idea that the risk of breast cancer is just as high as the risk of getting COVID.”

She said the center’s staff takes all the appropriate precautions at the Retreat to protect patients.

“Women who’ve been affected by breast cancer already are more apt to be coming in because they know the seriousness, they’ve been through it,” she said.

Yoder said COVID has affected a lot of things, but she thinks women “realize the importance of still taking care of themselves and getting the recommended screenings and appropriate treatments.”

“If they had issues, they’re still calling,” she added.

Scheduling is more normal than a year ago but she said for those women who are still fearful to undergo a mammography because of COVID-19, they need to be aware of their breasts and be familiar with the way they feel and look and reach out to their health care provider with any concerns.

However, she said, early detection by way of mammogram often occurs one to two years prior to detection by feeling a lump. Plus, it is estimated that it takes five to 10 years for some cancer cells to become palpable.

“Mammograms detect two to three times as many ‘early’ breast cancers (than) a physical exam might,” Yoder said.

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