By Barbara Grassley
So many life events and celebrations, from graduations to birthdays and weddings have been impacted by the pandemic. Earlier this year, when schools shut down and entire sectors of the economy closed to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, it also put the brakes on routine screenings and life-saving check-ups with our health care providers.
As a 33-year breast cancer survivor, my message during Breast Cancer Awareness month carries more urgency than ever. Early detection saves lives. According to the National Cancer Institute, missed screenings and delayed care caused by across-the-board shutdowns in our health care delivery system may result in at least 10,000 unnecessary deaths from breast and colon cancer in the next decade. What’s more, delayed clinical trials and research may slow advances in new cancer therapies.
Oncologists are reporting newly diagnosed cancer patients are starting treatment with advanced stages of disease compared to prior years. That hits close to home for me. My doc who performed my single mastectomy credited early detection for saving my life.
Treatment options have continued to improve in the three decades since I heard the four words many women have come to fear: “You have breast cancer.” After my surgery, I vowed to keep my annual screening appointment and do whatever I could to raise awareness so that more moms, sisters, aunts, and daughters would be empowered to beat their diagnosis and victoriously proclaim their own four words: “I am a survivor.”
Make no mistake, public health guidelines to contain COVID-19 and slow its transmission have saved lives and loved ones. However, it’s also true that isolating nursing home residents, shutting down businesses, closing schools and delaying routine health care screenings have created untold consequences that society will reckon with for years to come. During the pandemic, cancer patients may have missed a diagnosis, delayed treatment or put off reconstructive surgery. Others have faced treatments alone, without loved ones to provide emotional support, due to restrictions on visitors in hospitals and clinics across the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. It’s the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, and the leading cause of cancer death among Hispanic women. About 250,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and 2,300 in men each year in the United States. Projections show more than 42,000 women and more than 500 men are expected to die in 2020 from breast cancer in the U.S.
All of these facts underscore my advocacy for early detection. Each represents a beloved friend or family member. Patients diagnosed with fast-growing, stage 4 breast cancer don’t have time on their side. Don’t let the pandemic be your excuse to put off your breast health screening. Known risk factors are aging and gender. Talk to your health care provider about other risks and family history. Delaying screening could delay a cancer diagnosis. That translates into deferred medical care, limited treatment choices and jeopardized outcomes.
Those who have studied U.S. health care statistics during the pandemic say mammograms dropped off dramatically this spring. New patient oncology visits are down. Biopsies are down. Medical professionals say there hasn’t been a noticeable surge of screenings to narrow the gap. As a survivor, medical data like this raises all kinds of red flags. Quite simply, delayed detection reduces chances for effective treatment, healing, recovery and survival.
Trust your instincts. Don’t convince yourself that a lump is harmless. Don’t ignore warning signs. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor. Check it out to rule it out. The pandemic has put so much of our lives on hold this year. Don’t let it take away your future.
A lifelong Iowan, Barbara Grassley is a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program Advisory Committee and a 33-year breast cancer survivor. She and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary in August.