Why doctors worry as cancer screenings plummet during coronavirus pandemic

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was the end of May and Kate Peck had decided that a pandemic wasn’t going to keep her from getting her mammogram screening. 

It was that appointment that determined what happened next. Peck, 62, was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few days later. 

“Caught it real early, but it was strictly because of having… my yearly mammogram,” Peck said. “Had no pain, had no lumps, had no discharge — there was absolutely nothing.”

Peck said breast cancer runs in her family, so she’s been diligent about getting screened every year. 

“If I didn’t have my yearly, I don’t know how long it would have gone without me knowing it,” Peck said. “It would have been a lot more invasive and may have taken a lot more recovery.”

That worries doctors at Texas Oncology, which treat just over half of all newly-diagnosed cancer patients in the state. 

“I estimated that when pandemic first started — and we were all staying home, we were all retooling our practices — screening must have dropped off almost completely 90% at least,” explained Dr. Michelle Ashworth, Medical Oncologist and Hematologist at Texas Oncology–Round Rock. “It’s been slowly rebounding. I’m starting to see patients who have gotten their screenings, but it’s still severely decreased compared to prior.”

Dr. Ashworth said people are holding off on getting these routine checkups — including mammograms, colonoscopies and pap smears — due to COVID-19 exposure concerns. 

“This is going to have a ripple effect for the next year or two, when cancers are diagnosed at a later stage, than if they would have had their routine screening. They would have been diagnosed at an earlier stage,” Dr. Ashworth explained. 

Dr. Ashworth said pre-screening and extra precautions are now part of any screenings at their practices and include wearing masks, no visitors and spacing out appointments. Staff is required to wear personal protective equipment and disinfect after each patient is screened. 

Peck tells KXAN News that she felt very safe going to her screening and follow-up appointments. 

“We’re probably safer now than we were before COVID, because more people are aware,” Peck explained. “More people are washing their hands, they’re using hand sanitizer, they were in masks. People are cleaning offices and facilities.”

Just last week, Peck had a partial mastectomy and started on a treatment plan that will include radiation and chemo. 

“That should get rid of the rest of it, and then I can say I’m a cancer survivor,” Peck said. “So, yeah, we’re starting the battle.”

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