October is breast cancer awareness month, and if there’s one thing to take away from it each year, it’s that access to regular screenings for breast cancer (and all necessary checks) saves lives. This is especially consequential this election and pandemic-filled year when women’s healthcare has been a source of conflict and uncertainty.
Take it from me — I’ve watched my mom battle breast cancer twice over the past six years, and I’ve witnessed the consequences of not being able to get regularly checked.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still important to have yearly mammograms. However, there is often confusion surrounding the practice — such as when to start being screened, how to do so and why it’s necessary in the first place. In a time when many medical facilities are operating on limited hours and unemployment rates are on the rise (often meaning a loss of reliable healthcare), it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out how to have these procedures done. Many people feel that it’s easier to just put it off for a few months. My mom was one of those people.
After unexpectedly losing her health insurance, she chose to put off her yearly mammogram for six months. When she eventually scheduled a mammogram, it was too late — she had developed stage zero breast cancer, meaning it was not yet considered invasive. She was one of the lucky ones. Many find it for the first time in higher, more serious stages, which is why early detection is of the utmost importance.
“Finding breast cancer early and getting high-quality cancer treatment are the most important strategies to prevent deaths from breast cancer. Getting regular screening tests is a critically important part of finding breast cancer early,” said Dr. Laura Makaroff, senior vice president of prevention and early detection for the American Cancer Society, in a press release. “Breast cancer screening disparities are already evident and, without focused attention, are likely to increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Makaroff emphasized that it’s important to promote regular screenings, even in this uncertain period of time and to encourage people to talk to their doctors about how to proceed during the pandemic.
“Efforts to promote breast cancer screening and overcome barriers for populations with low screening prevalence must be at the forefront of our focus,” Makaroff said in a press release.
Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, a walk that occurs nationwide, took place in New Haven this past Sunday, Oct. 18. To make the event socially distant and safe under COVID-19 regulations, the organization modified it to be a car parade. One of the best ways to raise awareness for the cause as a Quinnipiac University student is to attend walks and events sponsored by breast cancer foundations, or even simply raise money for nearby causes.
Stephanie Balesano, communications director of the American Cancer Society, urged those that were participating in the event to recognize that cancer will not halt for COVID-19, and neither should they.
“Making Strides Against Breast Cancer has always been more than a walk — it is a movement,” Balesano said. “Because of the pandemic, this fall may look different, but the community’s passion to end breast cancer must stay the same.”
The pandemic is doing more damage to patients than expected. With significantly less funding than usual, facilities cannot carry out as much cancer research as they previously could.
Donating to organizations like the American Cancer Society and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is a great way to make a difference.
“The impact of COVID-19 will reduce the ability to fund cancer research by 50% in 2020 — the society’s lowest investment this century if current trends continue,” the American Cancer Society stated in a press release. “Communities, survivors, and caregivers are encouraged to rally around the fight and help raise crucial funds.”
The website of Susan G. Komen, one of the leading breast cancer organizations, notes that although all survivors of breast cancer are at risk of it coming back, “most people diagnosed with breast cancer will never have a breast cancer recurrence.”
It happened to my mom, and at two stages worse than before. Regular checks are absolutely necessary, even when it seems like a yearly annoyance.
In reinforcing the importance of routine screenings to prevent recurrence, the American Cancer Society website also says that low-risk women should begin to get mammograms done at age 40, repeating annually until age 55, when they should go every two years (or continue annually if they choose).
The numbers are much different for high-risk women, however. A woman may be considered at high risk for breast cancer if a relative tested positive for having the BRCA (breast cancer) 1 or BRCA 2 gene mutation, which is currently the leading risk factor for having breast cancer. Essentially, having one of the aforementioned gene mutations means that breast cancer could be passed on genetically. In this circumstance, the American Cancer Society recommends starting to get mammograms at age 25, repeating every six to 12 months.
It’s not always widely publicized that clinics such as Planned Parenthood offer free or low-cost mammograms for those who don’t have health insurance or can’t afford to go to a specialized doctor or radiology center. It’s important that these clinics remain open — over 276,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States alone each year, and this number could rise significantly if access to free and affordable screenings is restricted.
My mom is only one of millions who have been affected by breast cancer in their lifetime. Chances are you know someone who has been affected by this disease, too. The numbers are alarmingly real, and the effects last a lifetime. The next time a family member laments needing to get checked yet again, encourage them to go. It just might save their life.
“COVID-19 is putting a lot at risk right now, including the fight against breast cancer,” Balesano said in a statement to the greater New Haven community planning for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. “But this is one fight that can’t be cancelled or postponed.”