‘Don’t delay’: Local doctors say pandemic isn’t an excuse to avoid regular breast cancer screenings

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ST. GEORGE — In the age of the coronavirus, Utah doctors have seen fewer patients than normal for regular breast cancer screenings but the virus does not take away from the importance of breast cancer prevention.

File photo: Photo of a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness | Photo by Monash University via Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

Intermountain Healthcare breast cancer experts are encouraging women — and men — with breast cancer concerns or symptoms, or who may be due for a screening, not to wait for the virus to go away before seeing their doctor. Aside from breast cancer testing and treatment being cheaper and easier than it was a decade ago, clinics are also offering teleoncology services so anyone can see a doctor from home. 

Troy Koch, a radiologist at St. George Regional Hospital, told St. George News that breast cancer biopsies are much less invasive than they were a decade ago. People who are worried about the discomfort of a procedure should not let that stop them from making an appointment, he said. 

The invasiveness of a biopsy to find breast cancer has gone down so much, and someone who had it 15 years ago might tell you horror stories, but most people say it wasn’t bad at all,” Koch said. “I don’t want to downplay the discomfort, but I don’t want that to be something that keeps people from getting treated.”

People who had breast cancer symptoms several years ago but weren’t diagnosed may also be able to get tested again. In the past few years, experts have developed new testing that can trace breast cancer genes, Intermountain Healthcare medical oncologist and genetics specialist Margaret Van Meter said. She told St. George News that tests that used to cost thousands of dollars would cost no more than a few hundred dollars today, and they can detect more mutations than they used to be able to.

“Someone with a very high risk might have been tested 15 or 20 years ago and nothing showed up, but there might be additional testing that could be done now,” Van Meter said. “We are still learning about different genes that contribute to the risk of breast cancer.”

A vendor booth brings attention to breast cancer by allowing guests to “knock out” breast cancer during Streetfest in St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2016 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

People with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to visit a genetics counselor every few years, especially if a close relative had breast cancer, Van Meter said. People who were tested several years ago should also check back in, she added.

Although women are much more likely to get breast cancer, men are not immune. And women can inherit the breast cancer gene from their father. However, most breast cancer is not hereditary. A family history of breast cancer only presents a concern and it is a reason to be mindful of prevention, especially for women over the age of 40.

The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump in the breast called a palpable mass, Koch said. Anyone who feels a lump should immediately make an appointment with their doctor for a mammogram and ultrasound, Van Meter said. Unlike people with symptoms, those without symptoms can be tested for genetic mutations and screened without a referral from a doctor.

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Juan Ruiz Paramo/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Most consultations can be done virtually now, Van Meter said. Patients only need to physically visit a doctor if they need treatment or testing. Teleoncology services make it easier for doctors to connect with patients who live in rural areas, she said. 

“Our goal is to have people get the care they need close to home,” Van Meter said. “Teleoncology services are in the phase of rapid expansion so people can get the care they need.”

In addition to regular screenings, Van Meter said there are things women can do on their own to stay up to date with breast cancer prevention. A healthy lifestyle is important, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, not smoking and limiting alcohol intake, she said. Women should also examine their bodies so they know what looks normal and can see a doctor when something doesn’t look right, such as a lump. 

“Don’t delay for COVID,” Koch said. “We’ve seen some patients in the spring and diagnosed some cancers that we probably would’ve diagnosed months sooner.”

Women over the age of 40 should be screened annually. People whose mother or close relative had breast cancer are asked to begin screening 10 years before reaching the age their relative was when they had cancer. For example, someone whose mother had breast cancer at age 45 should begin annual screenings at age 35. 

To learn more about breast cancer, visit Intermountain Healthcare’s website. To make a screening or mammography appointment at St. George Regional Hospital, call 435-251-1777.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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