A Very Different Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Dana H. Smetherman, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, Chair of the American College of Radiology® (ACR®) Commission on Breast Imaging, contributed this post.

Breast radiologists are accustomed to Octobers filled with pink decorations, breast cancer ribbons, fundraising events and our highest monthly imaging volumes. Although we will continue to experience “Pinktober” for the next 31 days, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, October 2020 will look drastically different from years past.

Since the outset of the pandemic, many patients have postponed or skipped screening mammograms. In a June 2020 editorial in Science, Dr. Norman Sharpless, Director of the National Cancer Institute, predicted the United States could experience up to 10,000 excess breast and colon cancer deaths over the next ten years due to COVID-related delays in diagnosis. Other sources have estimated as many as 36,000 patients will experience delayed breast cancer diagnoses due to the pandemic.

As healthcare providers have learned more about COVID-19, extensive precautions — including mandatory masks, stringent cleaning of equipment and facilities, contact-free check-in procedures and socially distant waiting areas — have been put in place to safeguard our patients and employees from infection. In a recent TIME magazine article, Dr. Andrew Wagner, Associate Chief Medical Officer of the Dana-Farber Institute, confirmed that with the current safety procedures, the potential negative impact of missed cancer screenings probably outweighs the health concerns related to the coronavirus. 

Most breast radiologists are already aware that African American women are much more likely than white women to die of breast cancer, and that this mortality gap is only increasing. COVID-19 has laid bare other significant racial and socio-economic health disparities in our country. Patients have not only forgone routine annual mammograms, but also other important exams like colon and lung cancer screening and routine wellness visits.

As the pink October spotlight shines on breast cancer, I urge radiologists to use this opportunity to encourage patients to #ReturnToCare and get back on track with all of their other preventive screening and wellness activities. Screening mammography in the United States has led to an almost 40% decrease in breast cancer mortality. We should not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to erase any part of those lifesaving benefits or widen the existing healthcare disparities in the United States.

  • The American College of Radiology offers a toolkit of free, downloadable and customizable resources to help you and your referring providers re-connect with women ages 40 and older to schedule yearly mammograms postponed by the CDC-recommended COVID-19 non-urgent care shutdown. Check it out on acr.org.

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