Lucy De La Cruz, MD, is fellowship-trained in breast surgery and board-certified in general surgery. She specializes in the surgical management of benign and malignant breast disease.
In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people sheltered in place and avoided unnecessary activities outside the home, including elective medical appointments. But it’s a mistake to think of preventive medicine as unnecessary.
Breast cancer screening is an important part of women’s health. There are good reasons not to put off getting your annual mammogram — even during a pandemic.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screening
Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer in a woman’s breasts before there are any symptoms. Typically, that’s done with a mammogram, an X-ray of the breast.
Screening is important because it can identify breast cancers at earlier stages, when they are easier to treat and more likely to be cured. Mammograms can also identify high-risk lesions, cells that have a high risk of becoming cancerous. When these cells are identified early on, doctors can monitor them more closely to help keep you healthy.
Unfortunately, many women postponed their mammograms during the early days of the pandemic, out of fear that a visit to the clinic might expose them to COVID-19. That delay in mammograms may be why our medical practice has noticed a recent increase in patients whose breast cancer has spread further into the breast. The worst-case scenario is that delaying care could lead to worse outcomes for patients.
Safety in the COVID-19 Era
Fortunately, there is no reason to put off getting a mammogram. Radiology centers take great precautions to keep patients safe.
Such centers are already used to working with patients who have weakened immune systems, such as those receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. As a result, they take steps to sterilize equipment to keep patients safe.
In the COVID-19 era, such centers are taking even greater steps to protect patients. Many have reduced the number of patients in the waiting room so that everyone can maintain social distance. During a mammogram, you’ll typically be alone in the exam room with the technician, and everyone will be wearing masks. With these precautions, the risk of contracting the new coronavirus during a mammogram is very low, and outweighed by the benefits of timely breast cancer screening.
Not sure if you should get a mammogram? The American Society of Breast Surgeons recommends that:
- Women at average risk of breast cancer should start getting yearly mammograms at age 40.
- Women with a higher-than-average risk, such as those with a family history of breast cancer, should start annual screening mammograms at an earlier age.
Some medical organizations recommend starting mammograms at age 45 or 50. But newer research suggests that beginning screening at earlier ages can spot more cancers — and save more lives. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor to determine your risk level and to decide the best screening schedule for you.
It’s easy to make excuses and put off getting your annual mammogram. But breast cancer screening is an important — and relatively easy — way to invest in your health.