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May 04, 2021

COVID delayed mammograms: doctors say, ‘Get back on track’

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

COVID delayed mammograms: doctors say, ‘Get back on track’

Many things were put on hold when pandemic turned to panic. Now, doctors remind patients that routine screenings – such as mammograms – are vital in maintaining good health.

By IU Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

Every day Indiana residents see the numbers – those who are infected with COVID-19, and those who lost their lives to the novel virus. There’s another number that many people don’t see. That is the number of patients who - out of fear, or other reservations – put off health screenings.

By one count, there were a total of 2,286 IU Health patients who did not have their annual mammogram in 2020. Another count shows an additional 2,000 patients at IU Health regional hospitals who missed or are overdue for annual mammograms due to COVID-19.

“Mammograms are one of the few preventative screenings that actually save lives,” said IU Health Dr. Tarah Ballinger, who specializes in breast oncology. “The whole purpose is to find something you can’t feel yet but is treatable and survivable.”

Ballinger, who directs the hospital’s Breast Cancer Prevention Program has also seen a dip in the number of high-risk patients who have delayed follow up care such as an MRI.

Some patients are nervous; some are confused about the combination of the COVID vaccine and mammography results, she said There have been some reports that the vaccine can cause swelling in the lymph nodes.

“I advise them to wait four to six weeks after the vaccination before getting their mammogram, but we still want them to get their mammogram,” said Ballinger.

She describes potential outcomes for those who delay.

“It’s hard to ever know what would have happened, but there are several patients I’m seeing now who have tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes and they are getting chemotherapy. They may not have needed that if we had caught them earlier,” she said.

IU Health’s Dr. Jon Hathaway, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology shares the facts with his patients: “I tell them ‘cancer hurts a lot a more than a mammogram,’ and I remind them that breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second most common cancer related death in the U.S.”

Mammograms aren’t the only screenings that doctors advise when talking to patients about getting back on track.

“Pap smears, colonoscopies, and other vaccines such as shingles, flu, and pneumonia are important to help patients avoid emergency rooms,” said Hathaway. “If they are afraid, I suggest they talk to their doctor to find out their risk factors.”

In a movement to help patients get back on track, IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of 76 organizations participating in the American Cancer Society/National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s “Cancer Won’t Wait and Neither Should You” campaign. The details are here.

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