September 29, 2020 by John Fernandez
Wondering If You Can Get a Mammogram? The Answer: YES
The pandemic has forced most of us to stay home, change our habits and, in many cases, torpedo our plans. But one activity you should no longer postpone is getting a mammogram.
Cancer won’t wait until the pandemic ends. And you shouldn’t, either.
“We advocate annual screenings because patients have better outcomes if we catch cancer early. That hasn’t changed,” says radiologist Kathy Schilling, M.D., medical director of the Christine E. Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. “There are more treatment options in the early stages, less aggressive therapies if we find things when they are small and detected early.”
(Watch now: The Baptist Health News Team hears from radiologist Kathy Schilling, M.D., medical director of the Christine E. Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Video by Emilio Marrero.)
Breast cancer screenings were among the elective procedures put on hold in March under state and federal guidelines, creating a backlog of thousands of women who normally would have gotten their mammograms. However, those restrictions now have been lifted. Imaging locations such as Boca Regional’s Schmidt Family Center for Breast Care, South Miami Hospital’s Center for Women & Infants, and all of Baptist Health’s hospital and outpatient centers are taking extra precautions to safeguard patients from exposure to the coronavirus.
“Our concern, of course, is that patients are going to miss their annual screening. A three-month delay should not turn into a year. Some women may be tempted to say, ‘I’m going to skip this year and I’ll just go back next year when things are a little bit better.’ We don’t want that to happen,” Dr. Schilling says. “We will see bigger, palpable breast cancers if patients don’t come in for their screenings.”
Even if your mammograms have never detected any problems in the past, you can’t assume you’re in the clear for the future. “That’s like saying, ‘I’ve never been in an accident before, so I don’t need to wear a seat belt the next time I get into a car.’ It doesn’t really make sense,” Dr. Schilling says. Cancers grow at different rates and a “normal” mammogram one year is no guarantee that things won’t change the next time.
Statistics show one in eight women will develop breast cancer at some point in their life. With the exception of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, according to the American Cancer Society. It is also the second leading cause of cancer death in women. It is estimated that in 2020, there will be 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed among women in the U.S. and more than 42,170 breast cancer deaths.
Mammograms don’t prevent breast cancer, but they can save your life by detecting cancer early, before a lump can be felt. The average five-year survival rate for all breast cancer cases is 90 percent. But when breast cancer is found early and is still localized, the five-year survival rate is 99 percent, American Cancer Society figures show.
Annual Screenings: ‘We Know This Works’
Women of average risk with no family history of breast cancer should have annual screenings starting at age 40, according to the American College of Radiology, the Society of Breast Imaging and the American Society of Breast Surgeons. “For 40 years we’ve been screening patients on an annual basis and we’ve been able to cut the mortality of breast cancer by 40 percent because we’re able to find cancers early,” Dr. Schilling says. “We know this works.”
To encourage patients to return, Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute has been reaching out, prioritizing patients who might be at higher risk by using artificial intelligence software to review past mammograms. To catch up with the backlog, the breast center is now open additional hours six days a week.
In addition to contactless registration, screening all patients, having everyone wear masks, enhanced cleaning and distancing in the lobby, the center is taking additional safety steps such as doubling the time between appointments and having patients undress alone in the exam room rather than in a common changing room.
“Patients shouldn’t be fearful. They have to trust that we are doing everything we possibly can to protect not only them, but ourselves and our staff,” Dr. Schilling says.
If getting your annual mammogram fell off your list of things to do, it is time to pencil it back into your schedule. And even if you normally get your screening later in the fall or winter, you should start thinking ahead, since imaging centers may get crowded later in the year. If you’ve lost your health insurance, the Institute can provide assistance through grants, Dr. Schilling says.
“Annual screening is really important. We have to maintain the screening protocols, because otherwise we will lose all the gains from the past,” Dr. Schilling says. “Without screening, we’re going to see a lot more patients presenting with palpable cancers, larger cancers that require more difficult, aggressive therapies, more radical surgeries, more difficult medical therapies. That’s the message.”