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Please Don't Delay Your Breast Cancer Screening Because of Coronavirus - Breast Cancer During COVID-19

Don't Delay Your Breast Cancer Screening Because of Coronavirus

Plus, ways to reduce your risk of breast cancer right now.

cropped studio shot of a group of beautiful young women posing together in their underwear
Delmaine Donson

While Coronavirus cases continue to surge across the country, the tragic news of Kelly Preston's death after a two-year battle with breast cancer is a stark reminder that there are other health issues that should not be ignored. Staying home when possible is still the best call, but experts are urging women not to postpone or delay their annual breast cancer screening.

"When the numbers were very high here in New York, patients were not coming in for screening," says Dr. Stephanie Bernik, the Chief of Breast Service at Mount Sinai West and Associate Professor of Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "Even when the numbers were coming down, patients were still hesitant to come in. It's changing a bit now."

The ideal way to find a cancer is before you can actually feel it. The only way that will happen is to do a screening.

Bernik notes that delays in cancer screenings nationwide are likely and not without consequences. "We do screenings to try and find a cancer before you can feel it. Because if you can feel it, it's bigger and usually more advanced. Not always, but usually. The ideal way to find a cancer is before you can actually feel it," she says. "The only way that will happen is to do a screening."

Back in March, the Komen foundation recommended that "women delay routine breast cancer screening to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and allow health care workers to focus on managing the pandemic." But now, the foundation is encouraging women who are in otherwise good health to not delay calling their doctor to schedule a mammogram.

Call the screening facility ahead of time to ask what safety measures they're taking to protect their patients and staff. "Offices, clinics and hospitals are carefully managed to ensure the safety of patients, so the benefit of doing these exams and tests and possibly detecting an early cancer which can be cured now outweighs the potential risks we saw early on in the epidemic," notes Dr. Sylvia Adams, Director of the Breast Cancer Center at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center. That means if you missed your appointment this past spring—or are due for one this summer or fall—get in touch with your doctor right now.

If you're younger than 40 and haven't begun getting regular mammograms or ultrasounds to screen for breast cancer, experts point to prevention as being key. A healthy diet, low in fat and high in fiber, as well as regular exercise to lower your body fat percentage are both proven to reduce the risk of breast cancer in many studies. "When you're overweight, there are higher rates of circulating estrogen which is thought to stimulate breast cancer," adds Bernik.

And while you may be having a few more glasses of wine while in quarantine, limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption is also one of the biggest ways you can reduce your risk. Emerging research also points to low vitamin D levels, exposure to artificial light at night, and exposure to environmental chemicals as probable risk factors for breast cancer.

While many women are familiar with the recommendation to do monthly breast examinations in the shower, doctors are now saying that self-exams have fallen out of favor. "They have a high rate of false positives," notes Bernik. "Patients will often feel something and be concerned, which leads to a work up and produces a lot of anxiety, and then sometimes leads to surgery. I don't tell people not to do breast exams, but I tell people to be familiar with their breasts and know if there's something obvious that's changed."

If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts or underarms, the first thing to do is get in touch with your primary care doctor or gynecologist. They will either schedule an appointment or refer you to a specialist right away. "Several institutions also have set up cancer suspicion clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic which offer coordinated appointments to facilitate work up," adds Adams.

The most important thing to remember is not to delay. "If you cant get in touch with your doctor, you have to keep trying," advises Bernik. "It's not something to ignore."

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