October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, reminding all of us – particularly women – to think about breast health. It’s totally understandable if you’ve missed an appointment or two given the COVID-19 pandemic shut regular life down for a while last year. We’re all still trying to figure out the safest ways to navigate life while we continue to deal with a pandemic.
But I’m here to encourage you to check in with your doctor’s office, see what COVID-19 precautions they’ve put in place, and get your appointments back on the books.
A survey released by the Prevent Cancer Foundation found that 74% of women who received a COVID-19 vaccination were hesitant to visit a doctor’s office within the first year and a half of the pandemic.
This isn’t surprising given that women want to keep themselves safe during the pandemic. My office was no exception in seeing an uptick in cancelled appointments and no-shows. Common concerns were being near others in waiting rooms as well as not being able to bring someone for support, as many offices only allowed the patient back to the exam room.
Yet, as the pandemic continues, doctor’s offices continue to find ways to implement safety protocols. In my office, we allowed patients to check in and wait in their vehicle, placed our seating six feet apart, increased cleaning procedures of each room in between patient visits, and reconfigured the furniture in our waiting rooms to help promote social distancing. The staff is also always masked and all of our providers are vaccinated. Many offices are also doing the same.
Call your doctor with your concerns and see what adjustments they’ve made to address them. As health care providers, we’re hoping the accommodations we make will help you feel more comfortable in returning to see us. Some of my patients have let me know that they are still afraid to return to the office. They don’t want to risk getting sick or getting their loved ones sick. I try to reassure my patients that we are doing everything we can to ensure that they feel safe in the office. It is still so important to maintain annual exams and problem visits and not to put your health on the back burner during this unprecedented time. If you have a concern that isn’t being addressed, let us know so we can work on it.
Concerns around the pandemic aren’t the only reason women have missed getting their preventive breast cancer screenings. The Prevent Cancer Foundation survey also found that nearly a quarter of women haven’t been to see their OB-GYN or primary care provider in at least three years.
That may be in part due to an information gap. The same survey found that 42% of women don’t know how often they should receive a mammogram. That percentage increases to 47% for Black and Latina women and up to 54% for Asian women. Even in my own community and circle I have found that many people don’t know when to begin mammograms and cervical cancer screenings and how often to get screened.
The Prevent Cancer Foundation encourages women of average risk for breast cancer to begin annual mammograms at age 40 to have the best chance of detecting cancer early. That’s a general guideline, but the decision to be screened for breast cancer should be a shared decision between the patient and her doctor based on family history and other risk factors.
Other hesitations for scheduling an appointment my patients have shared with me include potential discomfort, embarrassment or fear that cancer may be found. Ironically, early cancer detection is one of the main reasons you should get preventive screenings. These tests can detect cancer before you have any symptoms. Waiting for symptoms before getting checked out will only delay a diagnosis. A delayed diagnosis means the treatment will likely be more invasive. Early diagnosis leads to improved survival, and regular doctor’s visits are critical in detecting cancer early.
One of the best resources we, as women, have in prioritizing our health is each other. Encouraging others to get screened is one of the best things you can do for your health and the health of the ones you love.
The Prevent Cancer survey found that 61% of women say they don’t often remind their female friends and family members to get routine cancer screenings.
Reminding each other that we’re all in this together can be an encouragement to prioritize our health. Find a friend to make your mammograms or Pap tests on the same day. Even if you two have different doctors, you’re more likely to follow through with your appointment knowing your buddy is going, too.
Our health should be a top priority. I encourage fellow women to schedule their screenings and encourage their loved ones to do the same. If you canceled your appointment last year, reschedule it. Your health can’t wait.
About Dr. Nicole Sparks
Dr. Nicole Sparks is an OB-GYN Physician, wife and mother of two children. She believes that because she has been so blessed, it is her duty to help others along the way. In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Sparks is a lifestyle content creator and entrepreneur who focuses on medicine, motherhood, and motivation. She has been featured on Good Morning America, Today, PopSugar, MedScape, Bustle, and more. You can visit her website at www.nicolealiciamd.com or follow her on Instagram and TikTok at @nicolealiciamd.