Mammogram screening delays seen by doctors during COVID-19 pandemic, but experts say diagnostic mammograms crucial for breast cancer survival

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CHICAGO (WLS) — Because of the pandemic, a vast majority of women have not had a mammogram this year, which is raising alarms for the American Cancer Society, an organization concerned with detecting breast cancer early.

Compared to 2019, the number of mammograms in 2020 is drastically lower.

“It’s plummeted down to about 10% of what we normally do. So that’s a 90% decline,” said Dr. Carmen Guerra, a national board scientific officer with the American Cancer Society. “Our grave concern is that we are not diagnosing cancers that are out there early when they are most treatable.”

The message rings loud and clear for breast cancer survivors like Ruth Melgarejo. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer exactly three years ago. She had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment after the surgery. She understands the importance of getting a mammogram now, despite the pandemic.

“I think it’s a question that we as women need to ask, ‘Hey, I care for you.’ So I tell my mom all the time, ‘Have you done your mammogram yet?'” said Melgarejo, a mother of six children.

The American Cancer Society’s guidelines recommend women 40 to 44 start getting mammograms to screen for breast cancer. Women 45 to 54 should get a mammogram every year. Women 55 and older can switch to every two years, or continue yearly screening, according to the guidelines.

RELATED: Loretto Hospital offering free mammograms for uninsured, underinsured women in October

Black and brown communities are especially vulnerable. For Latinas, breast cancer is the number one cause of death, Dr. Guerra said.

“There are a lot of barriers, especially with Latinos where they don’t have insurance or don’t have a physician that they see, but there is a lot of help out there,” said Melgarejo, a Latina deeply involved in cancer survivor support groups, including bilingual groups.

In Illinois, you may be able to get free screenings if you’re a woman living in the state without insurance. You must also be between 35 and 64 years old, although some younger women may be eligible in some cases as well, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website.

Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin women should see the links below for free help and resources in their states.

Ultimately, scheduling an appointment now is critical, even though the pandemic continues. Dr. Guerra emphasized that medical settings are cognizant and up to speed on protocols.

“Please schedule your mammogram. The hospitals, the clinics, the mammography centers have taken completely different protocols to make mammographies safe,” Dr. Guerra said.

Dr. Guerra also warned that waiting could put women in difficult situations. “We will be diagnosing a whole wave of breast cancers at a much later stage, which unfortunately the treatments are less effective,” she cautioned.

During Breast Cancer Awareness month, the focus isn’t just about women either. Jaime Viteri, a state board member with the American Cancer Society Illinois, also says the local branch is focusing on reaching out to diverse communities. Along with communities of colors, Viteri says the organization also helps those in a survivor’s support network, like men.

“I think the ACS does a very good job that ensuring men get involved as husbands, brothers,” Viteri said.

In the end, Melgarejo is grateful she took action early, and she’s encouraging women to schedule their mammograms. Her message to women right now: “Take care of yourself.”

MAMMOGRAM RESOURCES AND INFORMATION

Information for Indiana

Information for Illinois

Information for Wisconsin

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