SAN ANTONIO – Despite it being a quick screening that could save a woman’s life, oncologists are reporting sharp drops in mammogram appointments since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
June Chapko noticed an abnormality in her left breast in March.
“I noticed there was a thickening, but with COVID going on, I was really nervous about going to the doctor, so I put it off,” she said.
Chapko’s anxiety grew, knowing that her mother had breast cancer when she was younger.
So, in late May, Chapko went to the doctor, and sure enough, tests showed she had breast cancer.
“It just floored me,” she said. “I really was expecting it to be a benign cyst or something.”
Metropolitan Methodist Hospital and STRIC radiologist Dr. Richard Benedikt said unfortunately during the pandemic, Chapko’s story has been quite common.
“There are many oncologists reporting a 30 to 40% decrease in breast cancer diagnoses and cancer diagnoses in general, largely driven by patients not coming in for their routine screening exams,” he said.
Benedikt said all asymptomatic women over 40 should be getting mammograms yearly. He said right now, it’s extremely safe to go in for screenings, check ups and treatments.
“All the staff are screened each day they come to work and all the patients are screened before they enter. Family members are, unfortunately, not allowed to accompany the patients for an exam. There is social distancing outside the clinic, social distancing inside the clinic, physical barriers and all the equipment is cleaned and re-cleaned throughout the day. It might be one of the safest places for patients to be,” he said.
“I have felt safe from the very first visit,” Chapko said. “The space in the waiting room, it’s all organized so well that you don’t get close to anybody. When I had chemo I wore a mask, of course, and in the infusion room you had plenty of space in between chairs.”
Chemo has shrunk the lump in Chapko’s breast and in two days, she will undergo surgery to remove what’s left.
In the meantime, she has a message for other women.
“If I could just shout to everybody, ‘Get that mammogram! Don’t put it off.’ Just because you don’t feel anything doesn’t mean there’s nothing there,” she said. “Just go and do it. The doctors care about you and they’re not going to put you in harm’s way.”
Chapko now cherishes her doctors, and her life, more than ever before.