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Published on September 07, 2021

Breast, cervical cancer screenings seeing a resurgence

WH Screening

The number of breast and cervical cancer screenings plunged nationwide last year and hesitancy to seek care due to the pandemic is probably to blame. Breast Surgeon Naomi Kalliath, DO wants women to know it’s safe – and important - to return to hospitals and clinics for these screenings that save lives by finding early signs of cancer.

“I don’t think cancer is something to put on pause,” said Dr. Kalliath, who joined the staff of Cape Cod Hospital this month, having just completed a fellowship in breast surgical oncology at Women & Infants Hospital, in Providence, RI.

Dr. Kalliath said that she has seen patients being diagnosed with “slightly more advanced cancer because of waiting.”

Fortunately, she said, “most breast cancers are not aggressive cancer – 75-80 percent are slow growing.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer screenings dropped 87 percent and cervical cancer screenings dropped 84 percent in April 2020 compared with the average number in Aprils of the preceding five years.

Some of this drop was attributable to healthcare facilities temporarily shutting their doors or postponing some procedures during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government recommendations that people stay home as much as possible also likely played a part, as did patient fear of contracting the novel coronavirus, the CDC said in a press release.

A study on data from the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program looked at the effect of the pandemic during the first half of 2020. The study, published in Preventative Medicine, found the drop in screenings especially put at risk women of color and low-income women.

Screenings for both cancers also declined more in rural than in urban areas, though New York City, the region most affected during the early part of the pandemic, lost the greatest volume of screenings.

The study noted that Black and Hispanic women have the highest incidence of, and death from, cervical cancer. Black women and white women have similar incidence of breast cancer, but Black women have the highest breast cancer death rate. Black and Hispanic women also fall victim more often to triple-negative breast cancer, a more deadly form.

After bottoming out in April 2020, screening numbers began to climb, though are still well below the averages of recently preceding years.

Dr. Kalliath said the study highlighted the disparity in care for low-income and minority women, and she wished to reassure them that health facility staff take extra precautions to protect patients from infection. She urged women to not put off screenings.

“The earlier you catch (breast) cancer, the better,” she said.

Cape Cod Healthcare recommends that women of average risk for developing breast cancer follow the American College of Radiology guidelines and start getting annual mammograms at age 40. Women at higher risk of breast cancer because of a family history of cancer or known to have a genetic mutation that predisposes her to cancer, or other factors, may start at age 30.

The society recommends that annual Pap tests to look for signs of cervical cancer start at age 25, and testing for HPV (human papillomavirus) be done every 5 years.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program helps low-income women and those with little or no health insurance get screening and treatment. It funds screening and diagnostic services, and women diagnosed with cancer through the program may qualify for treatment paid by Medicaid.