In March, when people across the state and country were ordered to stay at home to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, people were rightfully leery about going out for anything — including to the doctor.
With this fear came a cancellation of annual mammogram appointments, which are recommended for women annually beginning around the age of 40. As different things begin to reopen, however, doctors urge women not to postpone their exams until next year.
“All women are at risk for developing breast cancer, even if they don’t have any family history at all,” said Dr. Kristi Harrington, who has been working with breast cancer patients for 19 years, mostly at Overlake Medical Center. “It’s important to note too that the majority of patients that I see who have been diagnosed with breast cancer didn’t have any symptoms.”
The routine annual mammogram is the exam that hopefully catches problems before they progress too far along — different than a diagnostic mammogram, which is performed if someone is experiencing unusual pain or other symptoms. While diagnostic mammograms have still been performed during COVID-19 shutdowns, Dr. Harrington said that she hopes patients will begin coming in for routine mammograms that were canceled in March, April, and May, rather than postponing them further.
“If you wait until you come in for your next routine health check, that may mean that something has time to grow and get worse,” she said. “And what we do know about breast cancer treatment is that the earlier it’s diagnosed, the more likely there’s a cure.”
A patient of Dr. Harrington’s, Marnie Vlahos, recently went in for an MRI screening — which she gets in addition to her mammograms because she is at a high risk for breast cancer — after having postponed the appointment when COVID-19 initially broke out.
“I was nervous about going because I also have asthma, which makes me higher risk for COVID-19,” Vlahos said. “But I’m also someone who really takes charge of my health, even though these screenings give me a lot of anxiety anyways.”
Vlahos had a virtual visit with Dr. Harrington, during which the two discussed safety measures, protocols, and concerns. After that, Vlahos scheduled the MRI appointment, and said the experience of going to Overlake was a good one.
“Everyone had a mask on, they took our temperature, and I felt safe. And having the appointment helped me sleep at night, knowing that I’m OK.”
Dr. Harrington emphasized that reputable health care centers will be taking every measure to keep their patients safe, and that getting a mammogram is likely safer than going to the grocery store as a result.
“I would encourage women to have a health care provider that they trust, and to go see them,” Dr. Harrington said.