The month of October traditionally has been recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year is no different. What has changed, though, is the number of women who have been scheduling and keeping their appointments for mammograms in 2020.
“We were pretty fortunate. Our screening evaluations were shut down here for about three weeks,” said Dr. Susan Branton, medical director of UPMC’s Kathryn Candor Lundy Breast Health Center, in Williamsport.
Mammograms are a digital imaging test used to identify potential issues, such as breast cancer. Women are primarily at risk, but men also can develop the disease.
As state governments and health care providers dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak early this year, some areas reported a definite delay in the screening and treatment of breast cancer.
“UPMC was aggressive about taking good care of our patients,” Branton said. “We never shut down for cancer or emergency breast issues treatment or care.”
While regular screenings were on hold, “we made a lot of changes to make it as safe as it could be,” she said, describing enhanced safety measures such as social distancing and intensive sanitizing.
“Patients in general are a little intimidated and scared to get back to their screenings,” Branton added, but she has found that “by the time they leave the facility, they feel very comfortable.”
Changes that the health center has implemented include screening people before they enter the facility; keeping the waiting room less full and being sure to distance those people who are inside; and establishing a policy of wearing masks.
“If a patient is concerned, it never hurts to call ahead to see what measures (a facility is) doing to ensure safety,” Branton said.
Screening for breast cancer through mammograms is “really important for women,” she added.
One in eight women has the chance of developing that specific cancer in the United States.
The chance increases for those in high-risk populations, such as women who have a family history or genetic predisposition for the disease.
Numerous elements play a role in predicting risk and “we need to tailor screening to the individual,” Branton said.
For some who are at a higher risk, screening can start earlier than the recommended 40 years of age.
Women who have dense breast tissue fall into a higher-risk category and, in the Williamsport area, statistics show that when it comes to breast density, “we are higher than the national average,” the doctor said. “We don’t really know the reason for that.”
Multiple factors can influence a woman’s breast density, including her individual makeup, hormonal factors, her body mass index (BMI) and her weight.
While women who have an average risk of developing breast cancer may be able to undergo a mammogram every year or possibly ever two years, a high-risk patient may be advised to get one every year and also could benefit from additional types of imaging such as an MRI or ultrasound.
The best thing to do is “get back on your recommended screenings,” Branton said.
For those who are concerned about the cost, many programs help those who have little to no insurance. Gov. Tom Wolf, in July, signed legislation to enlist insurance companies’ help in covering the costs. In addition, state assistance and even individual hospital systems offer reduced costs for mammogram testing.
“At UPMC in Muncy and Williamsport, we offer reduced cost mammograms during the month of October,” Branton said.
The program offers $55 mammograms to women with limited or no insurance coverage and no prior history of breast disease. Appointments are necessary and callers must mention the price when setting up the screening. Details for screenings in Muncy, Williamsport and Wellsboro follow:
· At UPMC Wellsboro, 32 Central Ave., screenings will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays. Call 570-723-0160 to schedule an appointment.
· At UMC Muncy, 215 E. Water St., screenings will be held from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Call 570-321-2545 to schedule an appointment.
· At the Breast Health Center on UPMC Williamsport’s Divine Providence Campus, 1100 Grampian Blvd., Williamsport, screenings will be held from 8 a.m. to noon this Saturday, Oct. 24. Call 570-326-8200 to schedule an appointment.
“The majority of our population is pretty proactive,” Branton said. “About 60% overall takes advantage of screening programs. Still, that’s a big population that doesn’t.
“It is safe to get back to screening studies,” she urged. “Don’t delay it any further.”