Usually punctual in getting health checks, Spokane Valley resident Mauricea Bozarth admits that time had slipped away when her husband reminded her to schedule a mammogram.
She’s grateful that screening was done in February beyond the fact it was prior to COVID-19 stay-home orders the next month. The mammogram caught early breast cancer.
During the pandemic, the U.S. weekly number of breast cancer diagnoses from screenings dropped nearly 52%, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
That decline saddens Bozarth, 55. Her voice cracks a bit when she describes first hearing about the small mass found in her left breast.
“This last year just before COVID, I should have gone in November 2019 for my mammogram,” said Bozarth, who has no family history of the disease.
“However, things just get away from you – schedules, working. It was actually my husband who mentioned, ‘Have you had your mammogram yet? You really need to go in and do that.’ ”
Bozarth said she normally is “religious” about regular mammograms every two years, and she is good about doing self-checks for any lumps. She hadn’t noticed anything unusual with her health this past spring.
“The scariest thing about this whole ordeal was the fact I know people who don’t get mammograms,” she said. “You can only say so much and tell people about the importance, then you sound like you’re hounding.
“When they sat me down and showed me a chart, I was Stage 1. They caught it. In less than two years without having mammograms, I could have been at Stage 4. That’s how fast it can grow; that’s how fast it can take you.”
Now recovered after a lumpectomy in May and then radiation therapy, Bozarth is even more emphatic that women shouldn’t delay getting mammograms.
That emphasis is shared by Dr. Rachel O’Connor, a radiologist at MultiCare’s Rockwood Breast Health Center – Spokane Valley.
She said doctors are concerned about whether they’ll see more patients with later stage cancers in a year’s time stemming from delayed care this past spring because of earlier shutdowns or fears about the coronavirus.
“We stayed open for patients who had clinical concerns, but we did take a break from screening during the initial shutdown,” O’Connor said.
“Since then, we’ve really been trying hard to encourage women to come in and get their screening mammogram done because obviously breast cancer isn’t gong to wait for a pandemic to pass.”
Since about May, O’Connor said the Rockwood practice has operated with full-screening services while marking above-average weekly numbers for routine mammograms. But she said the concern remains that some women might delay appointments during the pandemic.
Health providers have all added extra levels of precautions, including pre-screening of patients and temperature checks, to ensure that the mammograms are provided in a safe environment, O’Connor added.
Although a mammogram briefly requires close physical space between a technician and patient, the images are captured in a short time while both individuals wear a mask, she added.
“We didn’t want patients to be fearful, so we’ve worked hard to make them feel as safe as possible,” she said. “A quick 15-minute appointment could save your life. We want to encourage women to come out and get it done.
The office extended hours in October for national Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Past this month, however, the practice offers additional hours on at least one Saturday each month, O’Connor said.
Bozarth said after her recent mammogram, she waited a bit for the results, but then got a call asking her to return to the MultiCare practice for a 3D imaging check “because something didn’t look right.”
It all sounded routine enough, so Bozarth said she wasn’t worried about double-checking the first mammogram when she returned. Bozarth said she was told at that second appointment about the possibility of an ultrasound that same day depending on what the doctor saw.
“I did get the ultrasound, and when I was laying on the table watching the ultrasound screen, you could tell. You don’t have to be in the medical field to tell that there was something there, and it would blink every once in a while, and when it would blink, it would blink red.
“I knew it wasn’t a good thing. I was hoping it was anything but cancer. So I believe it was Dr. O’Connor who came in after that ultrasound.”
She said the doctor told her about the need for a biopsy but also leveled with her.
“She said, ‘In my years of practice and from what I see, it definitely looks like cancer,’ ” Bozarth recalled. “You know, it’s tough to hear that when you go in for a follow-up mammogram. Nobody wants to hear the C-word.’ ”
The biopsy occurred about four days after the 3D mammogram, with results arriving quickly at the end of February. Heading into her treatment plan, news hit hard about COVID-19, adding to her concerns. But she said with the facility’s prevention measures in place, she felt safe throughout her treatments.
“They scheduled me for surgery right near the end of May because I went into June and July recovering, and then going in and having radiation,” Bozarth said.
“I was lucky because they told me prior to having my surgery that they would go in and take lymph nodes, so I did have two incisions.”
And she knew going into the surgery that if cancer was found in the lymph nodes, “there was a slim chance that the lumpectomy could have turned into a mastectomy of my left breast, and I wouldn’t have known until I came out of my surgery.”
“But again, with early detection, it didn’t make it that far. When they found the lump, they said it was pea-size.”
If she’d waited to schedule her first mammogram, Bozarth said COVID-19-related effects might have delayed it. Now, she hopes that isn’t the case for others.
“I would have never known, and it could have been very devastating. However often your doctor suggests you go, you go.
“I can say the mammogram saved my life.”
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