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Doctors encourage women to get screened for breast cancer, emphasizing safety during COVID-19 

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In 20-plus years of performing mammograms, local radiologist Dr. Nanci Mercer said she's never seen such an alarming interruption in breast cancer screenings like she did during the first few months of COVID-19 this year.

"Literally, on a Wednesday we were doing all of the screenings and studies and diagnostic exams, and the next day, it was just nothing," said Mercer, a breast imaging specialist at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria. "No one was coming into the hospital for anything unless they were severely ill. That lasted for a long time, especially for breast imaging and mammography, from about mid-March until early June."

The initial drop-off in screenings was to be expected—COVID-19 orders brought all non-urgent or elective health services to a forced halt. But as clinics began to reopen with new COVID-19 protocols, Mercer said women were not only missing their annual mammograms, but many who had self-tested and discovered lumps delayed seeking care.

"People were waiting to get treated when they needed to be seen, even if they were home with a lump," Mercer said. "Unfortunately, a lot of them were in an advanced stage, which is not when we want to see a woman with breast cancer. We were obviously really concerned about that. People were afraid to come into hospitals and outpatient services."

Recent medical studies reinforce this as a nationwide trend. Two studies out of Massachusetts hospitals this year found that breast cancer screenings dropped substantially in 2020 and that nearly a third of women diagnosed with breast cancer delayed seeking care—including screenings.

Those kinds of statistics are alarming, Mercer said, given how important early detection is to treating cancer of all kinds.

"My goal and the goal of all breast imagers is really to detect at an early stage so we can really get the best care possible," she said. "The longer the wait, the higher the chances are that we won't catch it at the earlier stage."

click to enlarge PROMOTING HEALTH A CenCal Health TV ad campaign—"Welcome Back to Care"—encourages local residents to get back on track for their preventative health care, including breast cancer screenings. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CENCAL HEALTH
  • Photo Courtesy Of CenCal Health
  • PROMOTING HEALTH A CenCal Health TV ad campaign—"Welcome Back to Care"—encourages local residents to get back on track for their preventative health care, including breast cancer screenings.

With the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month, doctors have a simple message to the community about seeking preventative health care, like breast cancer screenings: Don't delay it.

An active ad campaign funded by CenCal Health, called "Welcome Back to Care," is wholly centered on that message. The bilingual TV ads aim to reassure Central Coast residents that their doctors' offices are safe to visit despite COVID-19.

"Our goal is to encourage people to believe that their providers are providing safe, no-risk visits, and we hope they get back on track for preventative care," said Karen Hord, deputy chief medical officer at CenCal Health.

Hord said that many preventative health services—from mammograms, to cervical cancer screenings, to immunizations—have seen a "drastic" decline since March, ranging from 25 to 40 percent.

"Obviously, immunizations help the health of our entire community, and cancers decrease one-third to one-half and are treated much earlier due to detection," Hord said. "Earlier detection leads to earlier treatment, and about 60 percent of the improvement in breast cancer survival is attributed to improved treatment."

Hord and Mercer both vouched for the safety and sterility of medical clinics. Masks, sanitation, and social distancing are all required, they said, and patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not inside preventative care offices.

The message appears to be getting out, because Mercer said breast cancer screenings are finally ticking back up to pre-pandemic levels. She strongly encouraged women who are due for a screening or suspect they've found a lump to schedule an appointment without hesitation or apprehension.

"All of our facilities are extremely safe, and we've taken all the precautions to keep patients safe during the pandemic," Mercer said. "We try to make it as easy as possible. Don't delay coming in. Take care of yourself and your health first." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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