Women still behind in breast cancer screenings

Doctors warn cases are worse when symptoms are ignored

Thelma Grimes
tgrimes@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 10/12/21

Just over two years after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Suzi McCumber continues to stress the importance of regular screenings. If McCumber had not gotten the recommended …

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Women still behind in breast cancer screenings

Doctors warn cases are worse when symptoms are ignored

Posted

Just over two years after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Suzi McCumber continues to stress the importance of regular screenings.

If McCumber had not gotten the recommended mammogram and treatment, her doctors said there is no way she would have survived more than a year.

McCumber, a Littleton-area resident, has remained positive throughout her treatment process. In high spirits, she happily reported that after more than a year of chemotherapy and radiation, she has moved on to the final stages of treatment, which is taking a pill for a few years to keep the cancer from coming back.

“I will continue to take this pill and do whatever the doctors tell me to do,” said the 67-year-old. “I just can’t stress enough how important it is for women to continue getting those screenings and tests. Sometimes you just do not know a lump is there. Sometimes you cannot feel it. I did not feel anything. The 3D mammogram found a mass all the way back in my pectoral muscle.”

Last year, while McCumber was receiving treatment, Dr. Radhika Acharya-Leon, section chief for medical oncology at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital, said had McCumber not been persistent in finding a place to do the biopsy during a pandemic and move treatment forward, given the aggressive form of breast cancer she had, she would not have survived long.

Since 2020, Acharya-Leon said doctors have become increasingly concerned with how women were putting off mammograms and recommended pap smears due to fear of catching COVID.

With the nation coming through the second COVID wave caused by the delta variant, HealthOne Dr. Laura Hafertepen,  a breast surgical oncologist with the Medical Center of Aurora, said the medical community’s concerns from last year are carrying over.

Because of the hesitancy to get screenings, Hafertepen said, when women are getting the original diagnosis the disease has already progressed to stages 2 or 3. With regular screenings, she said, doctors can catch cancer at stage 1 or zero. When breast cancer is caught in an early stage, Hafertepen said the prognosis and the treatment is a lot better.

Hafertepen said women are slowly getting back on track with mammograms and pap smears, but the pandemic has caused a backlog.

“We are still trying to make up for a significant dip from last year,” she said.

Hafertepen said it is not just a problem doctors along the Front Range are seeing — the problem is nationwide.

The Prevent Cancer Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, released the results of a survey in August where 2,003 women between the ages of 21 and 60 were surveyed. According to the results, 90% of the women surveyed said when pandemic restrictions were lifted, they engaged in normal activities, such as visiting family and friends, dining out and shopping. Only 48% of women visited their doctors’ offices.

Hafertepen said besides the fear of COVID creating a hesitancy to get regular screenings, women traditionally tend to take care of everyone else and ignore their own needs.

Hafertepen said it is not uncommon for a woman to ignore a strange lump or discharge, which are both breast cancer symptoms that should be checked out immediately.

“When they finally come in about a mass or continued discharge, the results are worse,” she said. “If we had seen them six months ago when they first noticed the symptoms, the prognosis is much better.”

Hafertepen said a lot of women do not realize that they do not even need a doctor’s referral to get a regular screening mammogram every year. The only time a referral is required is if there are symptoms present.

“If you feel something or notice something, go get it checked out. Call your doctor immediately,” Hafertepen said.

According to the American Cancer Society, women should start getting annual mammograms at age 40. Hafertepen said getting that first baseline reading at 40 is important for doctors to keep track of breast changes each year after.

That first breast exam can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, Hafertepen said.

“The anxiety is understandable, but you can truly get over that anxiety by just getting it done,” she said. “If you do not do it, that anxiety will stay there lingering in the back of your mind.”

Women can call any of the variety of mammogram service providers along the metro area and make appointments. Centers such as Invision Sally Jobe even make getting a mammogram fit schedules for busy women. Appointments can be made on Saturdays and evenings.

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