As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, research shows that many women are continuing to put off recommended breast cancer screenings. A word of advice from Riverside? Don't wait.
“Do not delay a diagnostic breast exam – for any reason – if you have a symptom that concerns you. This could be a sign of breast cancer or another condition that needs attention,” Riverside Regional Medical Center Radiologist Benjamin Pettus, said in a statement. “Consult your health care provider right away.”
A National Cancer Institute model offers a chilling forecast: More than 10,000 additional deaths are expected to occur in the U.S over the next decade due to delays in cancer screenings and treatments. That prediction, according to researchers, is a conservative estimate, and it refers to deaths that wouldn’t have occurred if it were not for the pandemic.
To raise awareness about the prevalence of breast cancer and the importance of early detection, Riverside launched a new Breast Cancer Awareness Speaker Series, which is taking place every week during the month of October.
The series includes four Facebook Live events presented by local experts. Each one focuses on a different topic relating to breast cancer, followed by a Q&A session where people can ask questions.
The healthcare team at Riverside emphasizes that breast cancer remains alarmingly common. In fact, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed in her lifetime.
There is no definitive way to prevent breast cancer, so preventative screenings are critically important. Early detection is strongly linked to increased survival, access to more treatment options, and improved quality of life, according to the American Cancer Society.
The Riverside Breast Cancer Awareness Speaker Series dives into the following topics:
Understanding the components of early detection, including breast self-awareness, clinical breast exam and screening mammograms (held on October 6)
Breast cancer in younger women and the unique challenges they face (held on October 13)
Disparities in breast cancer outcomes for racial and minority groups (coming October 20)
Understanding risk factors you can and cannot control and when to consider genetic testing (coming October 27)
Next week's event, Disparities in Breast Cancer Outcomes for Racial and Minority Groups, will include a discussion about why minority groups experience higher rates of death from breast cancer. Dr. Verneeta Williams will offer analysis on the topic and explain the efforts Riverside is making to eliminate early diagnosis barriers.
The final presentation on October 27, Risk Factors for Breast Cancer and When to Consider Genetic Testing, will underscore that while some risk factors are within a person's control, others - like family history - cannot be influenced. Featured speaker Dr. Andrea Avalos will elaborate on the factors that may increase risk and help you decide if genetic testing is right for you.
While breast cancer is most common in women over 40, experts stress that women of all ages need to be aware of their risk. According to Dr. Ilene Stephan, Internal Medicine Physician in the Riverside Cancer Care Network, young women often delay seeking medical care for breast cancer-related concerns. As a result, breast cancer detected in young women is more likely to be found at advanced stages and may be more challenging to treat.
"[W]omen under 40, unless considered high risk, may have undetected cancer and then be diagnosed at a later stage," Stephan told The Triangle.
According to Stephan, young women should begin having clinical breast exams at age 21 and should talk to their doctor to determine their risk. Those with a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors may be advised to follow a screening strategy prior to the age of 40.
"About 11% of all breast cancer cases in the United States are discovered in women younger than age 45, and breast cancer is the leading cause of death in women ages 20-39," Stephan said during her October 13 talk. "This number equates to about 26,000 young women per year dealing with this diagnosis."
If you're due for a routine screening mammogram but are planning to receive a Covid-19 vaccine or booster, experts say you should consider scheduling the mammogram four to six weeks after your last dose - or before you get the shot. That's because the immune reaction caused by the vaccine can interfere with mammogram imaging and lead to unnecessary callbacks and additional tests.
“Some women – a small percentage – develop swollen lymph nodes under the same arm where they received their COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Pettus. “This enlargement of the axillary lymph nodes usually subsides within a day or two, but it interferes with our ability to get a reliable reading of your mammogram.”
When you do arrive for your mammogram, tell your provider whether you've had the Covid-19 vaccine and in which arm it was given. That way, the radiologist can correctly interpret your mammogram results.
Sentara Healthcare is also requesting that the community make The Pink Promise for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The new campaign asks women to commit to scheduling a mammogram for themselves or reminding someone they love to schedule a breast cancer screening.
"We created The Pink Promise because the number of women who had screenings was down over the pandemic year," said Jennifer Reed, Breast Surgeon with Sentara Surgery Specialists, in a statement. "We want to see everyone return to regular screenings and make this promise to themselves and the people they love. And, we want to remind women that at age 40, it's time to make your appointment for your first mammogram."
Sentara also offers a wide variety of resources - including support groups - for survivors of breast cancer and women currently undergoing treatment. Some of the currently available support groups include:
Pink, Powerful & Perky Breast Cancer Support Group (2nd Thursday of the month, 7-9 pm; currently held virtually)
Swinging Survivors Breast Cancer Support Group (4th Wednesday of the month at 6 pm; currently held virtually)
The Rapunzel Project: If you've recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and are planning to undergo chemotherapy, "cold cap therapy," which is highly effective in preventing chemotherapy-related hair loss, may be an option for you. For more information about this under-recognized available procedure, check out the website of the Rapunzel Project, a nonprofit organization seeking to raise awareness about this option.
Here for the Girls: This Williamsburg-based nonprofit organization focuses on serving young women - those under age 51 - who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. They offer an array of resources, including in-person and virtual support services, connection to information and resources and opportunities to help other young women with breast cancer.
Check out this list of 20 podcasts, books and social media resources designed to help women impacted by breast cancer feel less alone.
The Susan G. Komen organization provides a comprehensive listing of resources that may be helpful for women impacted by breast cancer.
Riverside wants the community to be aware of the many breast cancer-related resources available through its network of services and specialists. Some of those include:
The Riverside Cancer Care Network has Oncology Nurse Navigators: The Riverside Cancer Care Network Patient Navigation program includes breast cancer nurse navigators. The navigators are with the patient each step of the way from diagnosis, through treatment and survivorship. They help guide patients and their families through the health care system in general and the breast cancer experience, in particular.
Lymphedema Clinic: Lymphedema is a medical condition that causes the body to hold extra fluid. If lymph nodes were removed as part of breast cancer treatment, there may be a higher likelihood of developing lymphedema. Riverside has specially trained lymphedema therapists that are experienced in lymphedema management and provide education on lymphedema prevention.
Cancer Wellness Program: Riverside offers a clinical wellness program for cancer patients and survivors, led by an ACSM certified cancer exercise trainer. Exercise can be a vital tool to help throughout cancer treatment and improve fitness levels beyond treatment into remission. Offered at the Riverside Wellness & Fitness Center, this 12-week program acts as a support group for cancer survivors and patients and was designed to help increase strength and endurance, improve mood and increase quality of life.
Cancer Nutrition Consults: The Riverside Cancer Care Network has registered dieticians that hold national certification in oncology, providing education and consultation regarding food, diet, supplementation and chemotherapy. Nutrition plays an essential role in cancer treatment, to ensure patients get essential nutrients, such as protein, vitamins and minerals, to help keep them strong and maintain a healthy body weight.
Breast Cancer Support Groups: Riverside offers breast cancer support groups, held monthly, and led by our breast cancer nurse navigators. The Peninsula’s breast cancer support group meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Due to Covid-19, this and all other support groups are currently being held virtually.
Riverside Foundation: The Riverside Foundation receives donations from the communities we serve that enable Riverside to elevate the standard of care for every person who walks through our doors. The Riverside Foundation works to close the gap between what insurance covers and what our patients deserve, provide funding that allows us to go from good to great – ensuring we have the best providers, facilities and care possible, and is a place where patients and their families can donate in gratitude for lifesaving and life-changing care.
Do you know of any other helpful resources for women impacted by breast cancer? Please share in the comments. And remember: If you want to receive my newsletters directly in your inbox, be sure to Subscribe. It's free.