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COVID-19 has had a major impact on health care delivery this year. In spring 2020, as part of the extraordinary precautions designed to keep people safe, certain medical appointments were postponed. These included cancer screenings such as mammograms.
Phoebe Freer, MD, a radiologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the University of Utah, urges women to prioritize getting a mammogram even during a pandemic. According to Freer, "A delay of a few weeks to a few months is not a big issue and has few negative effects, but delaying until the pandemic is over is a bigger risk."
Freer is leading efforts to help women get access to lifesaving mammography screenings. Her team has worked to implement a variety of safety protocols to help keep patients safe:
- COVID symptom screenings when making an appointment and at the time of appointment
- Employees and patients required to wear masks
- Social distancing in waiting areas
- Rooms disinfected between every patient
- Employees' temperature checked and symptom screened
"We know there was a drop in breast cancers diagnosed in the early stages of the pandemic. This is not due to an actual drop in breast cancer incidence, but it is because of the decline in diagnosis due to fewer patients coming in for mammograms to detect their cancer," Freer said.
"Those cancers, if they sit for another year, will eventually present at a more aggressive stage than they would have with earlier detection. We want women to know it is important to get your mammogram."
Jessica Rivera, a breast cancer patient at HCI, wants other women to know how important her mammogram was. Rivera scheduled her first mammogram when she turned 40, following screening guidelines. "It didn't seem like a big deal because it was self-care. You're doing something to take care of your health," she said. For Rivera, this mammogram turned out to be crucial—doctors diagnosed early-stage breast cancer. Had she delayed this screening, her treatment path could have been much more challenging.
Cancer screening guidelines say women should get a mammogram every year starting at age 40. According to Freer, getting mammograms reduces the chance of dying from breast cancer by nearly half.
Though getting a mammogram may be nerve-wracking, especially during COVID-19, "cancer still happens regardless of a pandemic, and I think all of our health care facilities are doing a phenomenal job screening people for symptoms," said Rivera.
At HCI, most mammogram results are available within 24 hours by a radiologist who specializes in reviewing images of breasts to detect cancer or other health issues.
During COVID, HCI has been working to make it easier for patients to receive mammograms by having longer scheduling hours, including Saturday appointments. Patients can receive a mammogram at multiple locations, including the HCI Cancer Screening and Education Bus, which travels around Utah to serve those who may not live near a clinic.
"As women, we put our own needs on the back burner, but we need to bring them to the front," Rivera said. "You can't pour from an empty cup. You need to be in good health and take care of yourself so you can take care of others and your family. Pandemic or no pandemic, there are things that need to be taken care of. And for women, mammograms are at the tip top."