Why Breast Cancer Screening Is Critical Even During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the globe, upending daily life in ways that were unimaginable a year ago. Health professionals say one of the most concerning consequences is the dramatic drop in preventive visits, including cancer screenings. Not seeing your doctor could have dangerous implications down the road. Most cancers are far easier to treat when discovered early. Here's why breast cancer screening is still critical, even in a pandemic.

Preventive healthcare usage remains low

When the pandemic hit, the American Society of Clinical Oncology recommended postponing in-person, routine cancer screenings to reduce patient-provider contact and conserve medical resources. Though this was meant to be a short-term response, patients stopped getting medical services in alarming numbers. In April, non-COVID hospitalization rates were way down, even for emergency conditions like appendicitis and heart attacks.

Although most medical centers are open now, preventive healthcare remains far lower than before the pandemic. Some worrying statistics:

  • 30%+ declines in preventive care visits, including vaccinations and cancer screenings
  • 56% drop in breast cancer screenings
  • 53% drop in cervical cancer screenings

Fewer screenings equal higher risks

Putting off screenings such as mammograms increases the risk of a serious cancer diagnosis later. The director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute says we could see more than 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colorectal cancer over the next decade due to the lack of screening.

Could the new public health crisis be worse than the pandemic?

Breast cancer has a 99% five-year survival rate when caught early. But only 27% when it has spread to distant parts of the body. Other cancers are also increasingly difficult to treat when not caught early. Also, chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease are more problematic when ravaging the body unchecked. Even pre-pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control  (CDC) said that chronic illness is the number-one driver of health care costs and causes prolonged discomfort for patients.

Putting off breast cancer and other screenings could create a secondary health crisis resulting in a public health toll even worse than COVID-19. Research consistently shows that those with chronic obesity, heart disease, lung issues, and cancer are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Experts predict that the COVID-19 outbreak will worsen through flu season. So it's more important than ever to get treatment if you have existing or emerging chronic illnesses.

What can we do about it?

Clearly, preventive care is essential to maintaining good health and lowering the risk of disease progression. Fortunately, it is possible to balance COVID-19 risks with regular medical care. Experts have learned a lot during the pandemic. Check the CDC's detailed guidelines for healthcare facilities to help keep patients safe. Most importantly:

  • Know which screenings you need, and which you can safely postpone. 
  • Use telehealth for standard wellness appointments that do not require screenings. 
  • Ask your doctor’s office what measures they're taking to protect your safety. 
  • Call your doctor before you visit if you've been exposed to COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms, and follow their instructions.

The COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious public health risk. But don't put off preventive care indefinitely. Decide with your doctor should what’s best to prioritize at this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the globe, upending daily life in ways that were unimaginable a year ago. For health professionals, one of the most concerning unintended consequences has been a dramatic drop in preventive visits, including cancer screenings. Hesitating to see your doctor could have dangerous implications down the road, as most cancers are far easier to treat when discovered early. Here is why breast cancer screening remains critical, even as we fight the pandemic.

Preventive healthcare usage remains low

When the pandemic hit, the American Society of Clinical Oncology recommended briefly postponing in-person, routine cancer screenings in order to reduce patient-provider contact and conserve medical resources. Though this was meant to be a short-term response to the initial outbreak, the number of patients seeking medical services dropped precipitously. In April, non-COVID hospitalization rates were way down, even for such emergency conditions as appendicitis and heart attacks.

Today, though most medical centers are open for business, preventive healthcare usage remains far lower than it was prior to the pandemic. Some worrying statistics include:

  • 30%-plus declines in preventive care visits, including vaccinations and cancer screenings
  • Breast cancer screenings down 56%
  • Cervical cancer screenings down 53%

Fewer screenings equal higher risks

Putting off screening visits such as mammograms increases the risk of a serious cancer diagnosis later. In fact, the director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute notes in an editorial that over the next decade, we could see more than 10,000 additional deaths from breast and colorectal cancer due to the lack of screening during the pandemic.

Could the new public health crisis be worse than the pandemic?

Breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of 99% when caught early, but only 27% when it has spread to distant parts of the body. Other cancers also become increasingly difficult to treat when not caught until they have spread. In addition, chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease are more problematic when allowed to ravage the body unchecked. In fact, before the pandemic, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) noted that chronic illnesses are the number-one driver of health care costs and inflict immense consequences on patients’ quality of life.

Putting off breast cancer screening and other vital preventive care during the pandemic could lead to a secondary health crisis resulting in a public health toll even worse than COVID-19. Also, research consistently shows that those with chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, lung issues, and cancer are at higher risk for severe COVID-19. Experts are predicting that the COVID-19 outbreak will worsen through the fall and winter, making it more important than ever for those with existing or emerging chronic illnesses to get proper treatment as soon as possible.

What can we do about it?

Clearly, preventive care is essential to maintaining good health and lowering the risk of disease progression. Fortunately, it is possible to balance the risks of COVID-19 against the need to seek regular medical care. Experts have learned a lot during the pandemic, and the CDC has published detailed guidelines for healthcare facilities to help keep patients safe.

  • Know which screenings you need, and which can be safely postponed at this time. 
  • Consider using telehealth for standard wellness appointments that do not require screenings. 
  • Talk to your doctor’s office to learn what measures are being taken to protect your safety. 
  • If you may have been exposed to COVID-19, call your doctor before going in and follow his or her instructions.

The COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious public health risk, but preventive care cannot be put off forever. Ultimately, you and your doctor should decide together what’s best to prioritize at this time.

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