Fighting Two Fronts in Fall: Breast Cancer and Coronavirus
By Martha Michael
While the world is watching for the signature cough, body aches and other symptoms of COVID-19 this year, approximately 276,480 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and more than 42,000 women will die from the disease.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a designation aimed at keeping the disease front-of-mind for legislators, medical experts, and the public at large. Such campaigns are important because breast cancer awareness leads to better detection and treatment.
“With your support, we can show every woman that her life is important,” says an article by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. “By working together, we can inspire hope and become a force for good to get her access to the care she needs.”
The goal is to provide screening, treatment, support and education to every woman, regardless of her circumstances. As well, the organization has expanded its message to include information about breast problems that do not include cancer.
COVID and Cancer Detection
An article by the Susan G. Komen Foundation explains the effects of various changes in breast cancer care due to COVID-19. By reducing staff and postponing routine screenings at imaging centers and hospitals, they are minimizing the spread of the virus; however, lower numbers of staff members have resulted in a drop in mammogram screening appointments available. The Foundation website recommends adhering to the postponement if you are an average risk patient with no signs of breast cancer.
Studies show that a biannual mammogram for women aged 50-74 offers nearly the same benefit as an annual screening. Beginning at age 55, the American Cancer Society recommends a mammogram every two years, not every year.
However, if you detect any warning signs of breast cancer, it is another story. The most successful chance at achieving an early diagnosis stems from a self-examination, particularly during the pandemic stay-at-home orders. Every woman should take note of changes to their breasts, including the detection of lumps on the breast or under the arm. Some of the most common signs of breast cancer are changes in the size, shape or feel of the breast or the presence of nipple discharge. If you suspect anything related to these types of changes, contact your medical professional immediately.
COVID and Cancer Treatment
For patients already battling breast cancer, the beginning of the pandemic brought concerns about changes to their treatment regimen. Due to the need for social distancing, cancer patients had to receive their therapies alone. Whether undergoing surgeries such as mastectomies or receiving regular chemotherapy treatments, no visitors were allowed in hospitals or other medical centers. In addition, patients began receiving follow-up care by telephone. Some cities have loosened these restrictions, while others continue such protocols.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommended the delay of elective procedures, there was a slowdown in care for cancer patients. Surgeries and screenings were paused to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, according to an article on BreastCancer.org. Decisions about cancer treatment are always difficult, but now doctors have to look at each case uniquely to determine the risk to a patient who may become seriously ill from the virus due to a weakened immune system.
It’s not that the COVID-19 patients became more important than the breast cancer patients,” says Donna-Marie Manasseh, MD, chief of the division of breast surgery and director of the breast cancer program at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’re making a true, conscious effort to figure out the right things to do for our breast cancer patients -- which includes protecting them from COVID-19 and treating their cancer.”
Like the vigilance we need as we weather the pandemic, it is equally important to remain aware that diseases such as breast cancer continue to develop. By adhering to a routine of self-examination while observing the guidance of health experts, patients can detect and treat breast cancer in the early stages to maximize a successful outcome.
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