How COVID-19 fears could lead to more cancer deaths

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but you’ve not heard much about the second leading cause of cancer death in women.

Instead, we’re all preoccupied not with cancer, but the other dreaded c-word: COVID. But we can not let our fear of catching COVID keep us from being screened for cancer. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening across the country, and right here at home.

The alert first came from Livingston County. Health leaders are alarmed because the number of mammography screenings performed are down 25%. While the leaders at Elizabeth Wende in Rochester don’t have the exact numbers yet, they’ve also seen a troubling decline in screenings. And Dr. Stamatia Destounis, a radiologist at Elizabeth Wende, says patients are using every excuse in the book.

“They will say things like, ‘Well, I’m a little nervous to come in. I’m a little worried. I don’t feel anything. I don’t have a family history of breast cancer. My doctor said I could wait’. So some women are choosing to postpone,” Destounis said.

My experience serves as a lesson about why early detection not only saves lives but also lessens the pain and length of treatment.

I was diagnosed in April 2018. I had undergone a double mastectomy seven years before, so mammograms were not recommended. But in every mastectomy, tiny bits of breast tissue is left behind. And I was one of the less than one percent of women who develop breast cancer following a bilateral mastectomy. By the time I caught cancer, it was stage 3. The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes throughout my chest cavity. So I first had chemotherapy, then surgery, then six weeks of daily radiation followed by more chemotherapy and a year-long clinical trial. I was in treatment for more than two-and-a-half years. Had we caught it early, my treatment likely would have taken weeks, not years.

"That’s the whole point of a screening mammogram is that we find it five years before you feel it or your doctor feels it," Destounis said. "And also your prognosis is 100% or close to 100%. And your survival rate is very very high"

But for some patients, the fear of catching COVID remains. Destounis says those fears are unfounded.

"We’re sanitizing every surface a patient touches. We’re constantly cleaning. We’re doing deep cleaning of every waiting area, every conference room, the x-ray rooms, the ultrasound rooms, the biopsy rooms. So everything is getting sanitized. Our staff is getting screened daily to make sure their healthy."

All these are measures to keep you healthy, and health leaders say that means there are no excuses. Don’t skip your cancer screenings.

There are also several Breast Cancer Awareness and screening events being held across the Rochester area.