Valley hospitals are seeing an increase in mammograms this fall as women return to clinics for vital screenings many delayed during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Officials at both Evangelical Community Hospital and Geisinger said the number of mammograms dropped significantly in the spring, a trend that was seen nationally. In an interview earlier this month, Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, said some clinics in the U.S. have seen a 95% decline in mammography.
“For a disease like breast cancer, that’s really important,” Sharpless said. “Stage is the major determinant of outcome in breast cancer.”
“If you have regular screenings with mammograms, you can catch it very early,” said Geisinger’s Dr. Monica Froicu. “You can go to a biopsy, have surgery without chemotherapy. If a woman is discovered in Stage 1 or Stage 2, there is a 99 percent survival. If we can detect it when it’s so small — when it’s treatable — all the better.”
“At the Center for Breast Health at Evangelical Community Hospital, we saw a marked decrease in screening mammograms from mid-March until mid-June,” said Dr. John Turner, Medical Director of Cancer Services and Evangelical and Clinical Co-Manager of the Thyra M. Humphreys Center for Breast Health. “This was the result of the Hospital’s pandemic plan during which the Center was only seeing patients with current cancer diagnoses or suspicious lumps and conditions that had the potential to be diagnosed as cancer.
Data shows that about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime with about 276,000 new cases estimated this year according to the American Cancer Society. Along with lung cancer, breast cancer is near the top of leading causes of death among women.
That is why the annual mammogram — which should start at age 40 according to Froicu — is so vital, and why delaying them during the pandemic forced local facilities to ramp up screenings.
“We encourage all women who may have put off an annual breast screening due to the pandemic to call the center to schedule an appointment,” Turner said.
Froicu said Geisinger shut its mammography program over March and April due to COVID-19. During that time, Geisinger’s diagnostic and clinical appointments were still held to treat those who had already been diagnosed. When mammography came back on May 18, Froicu said the health system added hours to clinics to reduce the backlog. The clinics remain open until 8 p.m.
“We had a plan to deal with the backlog of two months of patients,” she said. “We extended the slots from 15 to 30 minutes to allow 15 minutes for the appointment and 15 minutes to clean the rooms.”
Both local facilities have seen an increase in recent months and expect to see the pace continue.
“In June, when the Center opened to full operations and began seeing patients for annual breast screenings not related to health concerns, we saw a dramatic increase in routine patient screens including mammograms and whole breast ultrasounds,” Turner said. “We have COVID-19 precautions in place to make the screening appointments safe. Annual screenings make early detection possible and can save lives.”
“All of those people who were waiting, we have screened,” Froicu said. “We are now offering screening spots in less than a month, and diagnostic slots in less than a week. Doctors have put a lot of extra hours to get the community back on track. We are very very proud.”