Health Matters: Breast Cancer Isn’t Taking a COVID-Related Holiday

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During this pandemic, I understand why people aren’t following their normal routines, but some routines should continue no matter what. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I’m here to remind all women that their self-exams and mammograms should continue because, unfortunately, breast cancer isn’t taking a pandemic-related vacation.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, an estimated 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States this year, as well as 48,530 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. And sadly, an estimated 42,170 women in the U.S. will die from the disease.

The good news is that although one out of every eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, statistics suggest that 64 percent of cases will be diagnosed before the cancer has spread outside of the breast, making the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. This is why preventive screening is so important. Catching the cancer early gives women an excellent chance of a full recovery.

As with other types of cancer, some types of breast cancer are more aggressive, and some people are at higher risk. Generally speaking, it is less common for women younger than 50 to be diagnosed, but when they are, the cancer is often more aggressive. Whereas, when women who are older than 50 are diagnosed, the breast cancer is often less aggressive.

To catch breast cancer before it spreads, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women at average risk of breast cancer should undergo screening mammography every 1–2 years beginning at age 40 years and certainly no later than age 50 years and continue until at least age 75 years.

Mammography is a type of x-ray that uses minimal radiation to identify cancerous masses by their density. If a screening mammogram indicates a potential problem, the next step is usually an ultrasound, a diagnostic tool that picks up information about the soft tissue, including blood flow, whether a mass is solid or liquid-filled, and other pertinent information. Depending on those results, a biopsy may be ordered, during which cells are surgically removed and sent to the lab for analysis. Results from the biopsy allow for a definitive diagnosis.

Between mammograms, I encourage all my patients to do regular breast self-exams. I know several women who noticed an irregularity that ended up being breast cancer. Becoming more familiar with your body can allow you to notice subtle differences.

I’ve had some patients ask about thermography. Cancer cells can have higher blood flow, and thus, a hotter temperature, which this infrared technology can pick up. When I called a company that offers this service, they were clear that it should not be used to replace mammography as a screening tool, but rather as an additional option. A few health insurance companies may cover a portion of thermography, which typically costs about $200, but if the thermography picks up any problems, you’ll be referred for a mammogram (which is almost always covered by insurance), so I recommend just going straight for the gold standard—a mammogram.

Not all women face the same risk when it comes to breast cancer. At MCHC Health Centers, we offer genetic testing to high-risk patients, including those with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Women at highest risk include those with family members who had breast cancer in both breasts, family members who were diagnosed young, who had more than one family member with breast cancer, and any with a male member of the family with breast cancer (it’s rare, but it happens).

If the genetic testing indicates the presence of one of the two genetic markers for increased risk of breast cancer, patients may decide to take preventive steps such as a mastectomy.

So, although COVID has been getting all the attention recently, please remember that other medical problems can threaten your health. Don’t put off preventive care. Women diagnosed with breast cancer in its earliest stages typically have a full recovery, so if you haven’t been to the doctor in a while, schedule your annual well-woman check today.

Carolyn Wyatt is a women’s health nurse practitioner for Care for Her, a service of MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.

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