BSIP / Getty Images
  • The American Association of Cancer Research published two studies in July that confirmed disruptions in regular breast cancer screening tests, including mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs.
  • Some providers didn’t have enough resources to provide screenings amid the pandemic.
  • Additionally, some people may have been afraid to get screenings at a hospital.
  • Experts say it’s important to get annual screenings to guard against a missed cancer diagnosis.

With millions of Americans avoiding the doctor’s office amid the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have seen a drop in important screening procedures like mammograms.

Now some experts are concerned that even after the pandemic is over, there could be a new wave of cancer diagnoses.

The American Association of Cancer Research published two studies in July that confirmed disruptions in regular breast cancer screening tests, including mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRIs.

Months into the pandemic, the medical community is better equipped to handle new cases of COVID-19, and health and safety protocols have been implemented across hospitals all over the country.

Experts stress that it’s important to keep up with routine breast cancer screenings and treatments, especially if you’ve had yours delayed or canceled due to COVID-19.

Breast cancer screenings disrupted during COVID-19

In certain hard-hit areas like New York, there were serious disruptions to regular screenings as healthcare providers were trying to save medical resources, including doctors’ and technicians’ time and personal protective equipment, to treat people with COVID-19.

One survey from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that of those who had received a breast cancer diagnosis, about 22 percent had a delay in screening.

Without methods of early detection, it’s likely that the number of breast cancer cases will rise in the short term, especially as people are encouraged to start back up with their routine screenings.

The delay or absences of traditional screening reflect a more chaotic time at the start of the pandemic.

“We had all kinds of horrendous disruptions in the height of the pandemic,” said Dr. Julia Smith, medical oncologist at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center. “Between patients getting sick, the staff, doctors, nurses, and clinical staff all being pressed into service, it was really unbelievable.”

Returning to testing

Smith says people are now coming back for screenings, but in some cases the delay has put their health at risk.

“All the screening tests were put on hold,” Smith said. “Many people who had problems or complaints were afraid to come in and stayed home. As a result, we’re seeing an enormous number of cases now. Patients are trying to catch up and get in for what they missed. Some of the things they missed have caused them to be in worse shape.”

A second study that was published before being accepted to a peer-reviewed journal suggests a potential increase of more than 33,000 extra cancer deaths in the United States because of lack of early detection. However, this study looked at six types of cancer, not only breast cancer.

In August, researchers published a study in Oncology that warned both patients and providers to not delay screenings.

“While residents have taken to social distancing, cancer does not pause. The delay in diagnosis will likely lead to presentations at more advanced stages and poorer clinical outcomes,” the study authors wrote.

Can you return to your regular screenings for breast cancer?

Experts stress that processes are now put in place to maximize safety. Hospitals and doctors’ offices are among the safest places to be.

“There are fewer patients at any one time, and the centers are taking extra precautions with cleaning procedures. Everyone wears gowns and masks, and all patients and staff get their temperature taken when they enter the building,” said Dr. Dawn Hershman, director of breast oncology at New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center.

Smith says healthcare facilities are much more prepared.

“In hospitals and doctors’ offices, we now really know what to do to keep everyone safe,” Smith said. “Nothing is a guarantee, but I think women should feel that they should go for screenings now. It is very important to get back on track, to make sure if they have complaints that they bring attention to their doctors and go for the screening.”

When to see your physician immediately

Due to the number of delayed or canceled screenings, some people in certain areas can expect a considerable backlog when booking new appointments.

In many places, it can be months before a mammogram appointment can be made. The number one thing to remember is to not panic. Sign up for the next available slot.

However, there are a few signs that it may be time to go in sooner rather than later, in which case you should speak with your doctor immediately. These include:

  • any change in the breast, whether a new lump or discharge from the nipple
  • nipple retraction or new dimpling on the skin
  • an area of redness that won’t go away
  • swollen area under the arms

“Don’t be afraid to be persistent with doctors,” Smith said.

Hershman added, “It is also best to stay on track if you are high risk because you have a family history, if you have a personal history of breast cancer, or if there is something in the breast that is being followed closely and they recommend a short follow-up.”

Our partners: