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Agnes Mikijaniec, APRN

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For reasons that are obvious and understandable, many Americans decided to postpone or cancel elective healthcare procedures, surgeries, and preventive screenings during the covid-19 pandemic. Volunteer trips to the hospital and routine check-ups in primary care settings took a back seat to any strategy that might help prevent becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Routine screenings for breast cancer (usually in the form of an annual mammogram) are, unfortunately, among the many healthcare casualties of the pandemic. The good news, however, is that numbers are rebounding. Nationwide, breast cancer screenings have recovered to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. But we still need to do better: one of the most compelling reasons why is that postponing or skipping an annual mammogram may lead to a delayed cancer diagnosis in people who would otherwise have discovered the disease at an earlier and more easily treatable stage.

It’s already happening — with cancer and other serious illnesses — as health care providers across the country report that patients who deferred routine screenings are now showing up in hospitals. And according to the American Hospital Association, some of them are coming in sicker and requiring longer, more costly treatments.

And now physicians worry that in the coming years they will be seeing an increase in patients diagnosed with more advanced breast cancers. One estimate published by the Breast Imaging Commission of the American College of Radiology estimates that an additional 5,200 women in the U.S. may die from breast cancer in the next decade as a result of pandemic-related screening cancellations.

Although screenings for breast cancer have rebounded at a higher rate than the national average here at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s Breast Care Center, we want every one of our patients to get back into the swing of an annual mammogram.

Sure, covid-19 still requires us to be thoughtful and cautious. But as a society we are in a vastly different place than we were two years ago, thanks to safe, effective vaccines and boosters. Even people who continue to work from home and who generally try to avoid public spaces should not be afraid to resume visits to their doctor’s office.

And if you’re someone who has no hesitation about shopping retail or attending a movie without a mask, then making a trip to your provider’s office should not be cause for worry. Healthcare facilities are vigilant about infection prevention, and people have every reason to feel safe when coming in to receive screenings and other healthcare services.

The annual mammogram is the key to catching breast cancer early. And catching breast cancer early is the key to successful treatment. We want to see our patients healthy, and that’s why we encourage women and people who have undergone gender reassignment to get back into the habit of annual breast cancer screening.

Agnes Mikijaniec is an advanced practice registered nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.