“It’s still safe:” doctors urge patients to stop delaying breast cancer screenings over fears of COVID-19


GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – October is always a month where you see a lot of pink and hear a lot about breast cancer.

This year the annual awareness campaigns and push to get a mammogram come with a new concern.

Doctors are seeing fewer patients getting screened for breast cancer over fears of contracting COVID-19.

“Across the country, we’re 30 percent down in mammograms because of the pandemic,” says Prevea Health breast surgeon Dr. Colette Salm-Schmid.

Thirty percent.

That worries Dr. Salm-Schmid, who doesn’t just see numbers, she sees the people behind those statistics.

Since the pandemic began, she’s seen a handful of women who delayed annual screenings that would have caught their cancer sooner.

“They waited longer because they didn’t think it was safe, so it’s not one. I have had more than a handful,” she says. “The ones that are breaking my heart are patients who felt a lump at the beginning of the pandemic and they’re coming in now because now they have more symptoms, and I worry about them.”

Dr. Salm-Schmid says health care has taken great strides to make exams as safe as possible with social distancing, required masks and continually sanitized equipment, but the people at an increased risk of developing breast cancer are also at higher risk of contracting COVID because of their age.

She says the average age of breast cancer she sees is over 70, but that is also the age at a higher risk for COVID-19.

“We just need them to know we’ve taken precautions, so from the minute they hit the door until the minute they get their mammogram, we got them covered and it’s okay. It’s safe to come in and get your mammogram,” she stresses.

Dr. Salm-Schmid says some patients are worried about treatment, concerned chemo could zap their immunity and make them more susceptible to coronavirus.

But she says rest assured. Earlier this year, in the span of one month, more than 1,000 organizations teamed up to create evidence-based guidelines to ensure cancer patients still get the care they need, even if it’s different than it used to be.

“Sometimes we can’t do chemo right away, but what chemo can we give them so their counts don’t drop enough? Or sometimes we have to give them an anti-estrogen pill, and that’s safe,” she explains.

For patients who are still too afraid to come in, Dr. Salm-Schmid says there are alternatives.

“We have virtual visits still. We have phone visits still, so we can help you triage your problem to make sure you know… this is okay or this is not okay, and we can help triage that,” she says.

One of the biggest parts of treatment is support from friends and family.

That’s hard when we have to social distance, but that doesn’t mean it stops.

It, too, just looks different.

“You can play cards over the internet. You can have coffee over the internet,” she suggests. “You can make a video for them that they can watch over and over again and send it to them. You can dance with them. You can TikTok with them. You can watch your favorite show with them. You can Netflix together. There are lots of ways you can connect with the technology we have today.”

And the list goes on.

She says making meals or shopping and leaving food on a front porch is also a big hit with patients.

“I think meals and shopping is one way you can get creative. You don’t have to touch them. They know you care. You can help them out,” she adds.

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