Steep drop in breast cancer screenings during pandemic alarming

Breast cancer is still a concern for younger women and breast cancer ultrasounds and MRIs are still recommended for those worried about any possible signs of cancer in their breasts. Photo: Pexels

(Tina Dawn/ VM Med Clinic) — The last two years of a global pandemic have taken a serious toll on, not only people’s physical and mental health, but also on the healthcare they have access to. The deadly virus forced healthcare workers to understandably prioritize battling COVID-19, but it has, at times, also severely taxed overburdened medical institutions and compromised care.

Many public healthcare providers were forced to delay elective care, cancel surgeries, screenings, and other treatments that were not considered urgent. Hospitals began limiting services to protect people from being exposed to COVID-19 and to save precious resources for seriously ill patients with the virus.

In many cases, patients themselves opted to stay home and delayed their own annual medical check-ups, breast MRI, or mammograms, attempting to stay away from COVID-19 outbreaks, and believing their screening could wait until the pandemic was over.

Cancer detection compromised in past two years

As a result, cancer detection has fallen dramatically. A report published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network showed a disturbing 34 percent drop. These months-long delays in screenings, diagnosis, medical follow-ups and treatment are now having a serious effect on the outcomes of cancer patients.

The news prompted the Canadian Cancer Society to recently issue a statement saying they are “deeply concerned that we will see cancer cases diagnosed or treated too late.” These delays are even more worrisome when studies show that a mere four-week delay in cancer treatments can increase the risk of death by about 10 percent.

Routine check-ups for women –their annual Pap test, breast examinations, or a mammogram– were often pushed to the wayside, increasing chances of a delayed diagnosis.

Young women particularly may have felt there was no real urgency to follow through on these tests, since breast cancer diagnoses in young women are so low. It’s a misconception that, for some women, may prove deadly.

Breast cancer is not just an old woman’s disease

There’s a common belief that—unless you have a genetic predisposition or family history– breast cancer only affects older women. A misplaced notion that younger women don’t really have to worry about breast cancer much until they hit the age where regular mammograms are required.

It’s a comforting thought that reassures many women and often makes them ignore red flags or warning signs that indicate something may be wrong.

But breast cancer isn’t just an older woman’s possibility. Although admittedly much rarer, breast cancer is still a concern for younger women and breast cancer ultrasounds and MRIs are still recommended for those worried about any possible signs of cancer in their breasts.

Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women aged 30 to 49 years old and about 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer during her life. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 9 percent of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women younger than 45 years of age. That is not an insignificant number, and it is why young women can’t afford to ignore the signs and make sure they routinely go for a mammography test, a breast MRI, or a breast ultrasound if required.

Awareness campaign in Quebec

The Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation recently launched an awareness campaign to remind women that breast cancer can affect them at any age and that early detection may save their lives.

In the meantime, the Quebec Health Ministry urges all women aged 50 to 69 to have a mammogram every 2 years, since a mammogram is the only screening exam that can reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer.

At the end of the day, the most important piece of advice experts give is, don’t delay mammograms and breast cancer diagnosis, allowing the cancer the opportunity to progress into a more advanced stage. Take control of your health and catch it early!

The VM Med Montreal Breast Center is the largest private breast center in Canada. The Montreal clinic is an internationally recognized leader in the field of breast cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment, with a team of specialists and oncologists taking care of every possibility, from possible biopsy to breast reconstruction surgery.