SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, non-urgent breast care screenings and mammograms were rescheduled due to safety restrictions. But now doctors are urging women who missed their screenings to get in as soon as possible.
One Utah women is grateful she stayed on top of her care.
Heather McKenna, 42, is no stranger to breast cancer. Both her grandmother and her mother battled the ugly disease.
McKenna lost her grandmother to the illness. She never met her.
"The cancer spread all over her body, so she passed away before I was born," she said.
But fortunately, her mother is still alive.
"She survived it and they caught it really early on," she said.
Because of her family history of breast cancer, McKenna has always been proactive about regular mammograms. But she missed her yearly appointment in March, early on in the spread of COVID-19 in the United States when non-urgent breast care screenings were being postponed.
In the meantime, McKenna stayed on top of her personal care.
"And then in about May, I actually found a new lump," McKenna described, which heightened her nerves. "Clearly at this point, we were a little anxious because we knew there was something."
She went in for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. The doctor found a small mass and was able to perform a same-day biopsy to avoid another trip to the hospital.
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Typically patients have to reschedule a follow-up appointment for a biopsy, but Intermountain Healthcare is trying to find ways to reduce the number of visits and exposures by consolidating appointments. McKenna said she was grateful she didn't have to wait another couple weeks.
Fortunately McKenna's tumor was benign.
"Very relieved! My son is moving to college and so the idea of mom being sick while he was leaving was making him really anxious," she explained.
The entire family was thrilled to receive good news.
Intermountain Healthcare's Dr. Brett Parkinson says it's critical for women to stay on top of regular screening mammography.
"The timing is crucial," he said. "If a woman delays her screening, she may be diagnosed at a later stage."
He said not all cancers grow at the same rate. Some may take a year or two to double, but others can double within a few months.
"If we catch the cancer early, we can minimize the harshness of the treatment," he continued, and in a lot of cases avoid chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Parkinson said breast cancer doesn't stop for COVID-19.
"Cancer hasn't taken a pause — it continues to grow, so we have some catching up to do," he said.
"If you can catch breast cancer in its earliest stage, which is what we call stage zero … the cure rate really does approach almost 100 percent — it's 99 percent," he said, emphasizing the importance for regular screening mammography.
Parkinson said Intermountain clinics are taking extra measures to ensure patient safety during the pandemic.
"We have social distancing in place, we clean all of the machines between patients, all of our providers are wearing masks … so it's really a safe environment," Parkinson said.
"It was really nice and orderly," McKenna added. "I probably felt safer there than I do at the grocery store."
She said despite going to the appointment alone to comply with the safety restrictions, she felt taken care of.
"They were so gracious and so kind and made sure that everything was taken care of," she said.
Heather McKenna encourages other women to make routine screening a priority.
"Take it seriously, just put it on the schedule and make it important and get in every year," she said. "It's easier than going to the dentist."
McKenna's grateful she was paying attention.
"If I hadn't been very aware of my own body, I would have missed that and probably waited until next year, and who knows if that would have been too late," she said.
She looks forward to creating many more memories with her husband and their son.
"He's our everything!" she said.
McKenna will continue to go for more frequent screening to monitor the benign tumor the doctor found since it does increase the chance of cancer down the road.
Parkinson said women should start screening at age 40, or earlier if they have a family history of breast cancer.
Intermountain is also offering expanded hours to accommodate the demand and to help women get screened at their convenience. To schedule a mammogram, call 801-507-7840, or visit Intermountain Healthcare.