The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated headlines around the world for nearly two years, and with good reason. More than 200 million people have contracted the illness, and the global death toll is approaching 5 million.
Those are grim numbers, and they grow every day. Dozens of health organizations, media outlets and government agencies track the pandemic's path and trajectory in real time.
COVID-19's collateral impact, however, will likely take years, perhaps even a decade or more to fully comprehend and tabulate – and some of that impact will be felt by women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
The math is fairly simple. In April 2020, 87% fewer mammograms were performed nationwide compared to April 2019. Some screening sites simply shut down, and many hospitals suspended preventive tests and non-emergency procedures in an effort to reduce close contacts at a time when the virus was spreading unchecked, with no vaccine available.
Human nature being what it is, some women doubtless felt at least a bit of relief when their mammograms were postponed. The procedure isn't exactly comfortable, and 10% of women who get regular mammograms will get an unnerving “call back” at some point. While the vast majority of those women don't have cancer, the time between that call and the eventual all-clear can be long and frightening.
But if you are among the women who took a break from annual mammograms in 2020 and have yet to get back in the routine – well, break time is officially over.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – and in some ways, this observance brings attention to a success story. Globally, no cancer is more common than breast cancer, with 2.26 million cases diagnosed annually, but the death tolls from other forms of cancer (lung, colon, prostate and skin) are significantly higher.
Since 1990, screening and early detection of breast cancer through mammography have saved more than half a million lives in the United States. A recent study found that the 10-year survival rate of women diagnosed with breast cancer is 50% higher for those who had received two regular screenings prior to their diagnosis.
But stunningly, only half of eligible women in the United States do not get annual mammograms – including 25% of those who have insurance that would pay for it.
As is the case with many cancer screenings, one of the biggest barriers is fear. People are afraid of procedures that are new to them, and there's still a persistent, often unconscious belief that if you feel fine, you are fine.
That's simply not the case with many forms of cancer, including breast cancer. Women who wait until they feel a lump to see their doctor have a much worse prognosis.
So now's the time to resume an old routine, or to start a new one. Make the call. Set up the appointment. Men, if your wife, girlfriend or partner is reluctant, go the extra mile to encourage them. Volunteer to schedule your own tests for cholesterol, prostate cancer and a colonoscopy if you're due for one.
After all, the pandemic didn't just delay mammograms – and the last thing anyone wants is to survive COVID-19, only to find out that a missed screening gave another disease extra time to take hold.