By Julia Bisschops
The number of newly reported cancer cases is down. That sounds like good news, but it’s not. Fewer cancers are being diagnosed because fewer people are getting screened for cancer. They are postponing routine screening tests like mammograms, pap smears, and colonoscopies because of COVID-19. A recent survey by the Prevent Cancer Foundation found that 43% of Americans missed preventive medical appointments because of COVID-19. The key to saving lives in cancer screenings is early detection, and we are losing this opportunity during this pandemic.
I understand the apprehension. As the physician lead of the Linda Fenner 3D Mobile Mammography Center, I know that screening tests, including mammograms, are inherently nerve-wracking. Our patients don’t rest easy until they hear their mammogram results are normal. Now, they have the added worry of being exposed to the new coronavirus. Understandably, some women don’t want to take the risk. By postponing a mammogram, they are also taking a risk.
Mammography saves lives. It allows us to detect breast cancer early. And the earlier we catch it, the greater a woman’s chance of survival.
The Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine launched the mobile mammography center in 2014 in response to alarming rates of late-stage breast cancer in South Florida communities where many uninsured women lack access to health care. We provide free screening mammograms to uninsured women in Miami Dade County and have a patient navigator to help guide women who require follow up imaging studies and specialized care.
Like many other health facilities, our mobile mammography center temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are back. And so are other imaging centers. I urge women to get preventive care, including mammograms, and get them done safely.
Our new normal includes a limit of only one patient in the mobile center at a time to allow for social distancing. We do pre-screening phone calls to minimize the risk of someone bringing the virus on board, and we do a deep cleaning after each patient. We also provide patients with a mask to wear before coming on board, and our entire staff wears personal protective equipment—mask, face shield, gloves, gown. I recommend that you inquire and make sure that your doctor or health care facility is also following all necessary safety precautions.
We can no longer afford to put these important health screenings on hold. Dr. Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, warns that COVID-19 could impact cancer mortality. He predicts that a decline in breast and colorectal cancer screening alone may lead to 10,000 additional deaths in the next decade due to the lost opportunity for early detection before cancer can spread.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but for us, every month is October. We must remind women year-round about the importance of breast cancer screening.
**Uninsured women interested in a free screening mammogram can call 305-FIU-PINK (305-348-7465).