What to expect when you’re expecting a mammogram during the pandemic
Pink ribbons everywhere remind us that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, you might be thinking of skipping your mammogram to avoid possible exposure to the virus.
Dr. Louis Manquen, a diagnostic radiologist at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, IL, tackles that worry and other issues about mammography and breast health in the age of coronavirus.
Q: It’s time for my annual mammogram. Should I put it off until next year or whenever a COVID vaccine is available? Is it really safe to come to the hospital or an outpatient facility?
A: Don’t delay your exam. As part of our Safe Care promise, we’ve taken additional measures to protect you during your mammogram or breast ultrasound visit. This includes virtual check-ins, screening when you register and enter the facility, mandated masks for all patients and staff, social distancing and enhanced cleaning of all rooms and imaging devices between patient encounters. There’s no congregating of patients in the waiting room; all patients dress and undress in the exam rooms. There’s greater potential harm in delaying your screening mammogram than coming in for your appointment.
Q: I was told I have dense breasts. What does that mean?
A: An estimated 40% of women who get mammograms have a dense mammographic pattern. Because your breast density is composed of white fibroglandular tissue and breast cancer is also white, dense breasts are more likely to hide cancer. This could delay a breast cancer diagnosis. It’s also why you should never ignore any new symptoms like a breast lump, even if you have had a recent negative mammogram. And it’s why you should not miss your yearly screening mammogram. Your care team might order supplemental screening exams to help find a hidden breast cancer in dense breast tissue. These supplemental exams include whole breast screening ultrasound, which has been found to improve cancer detection in women with dense breasts. It’s relatively low cost and reimbursed by Illinois health insurance plans.
Q: If I get called back from my screening mammogram for additional imaging, should I be concerned?
A: Around 5% to 10% of all women screened are called back for additional mammogram views or breast ultrasound or both. Most of the time, the additional images reveal normal tissue or benign, non-cancerous cysts or masses. The three-dimensional tomographic mammograms performed at the Condell Women Center decrease call back exams significantly. Of the 1,000 women screened with mammography here at Condell 3-4 cancers will be found; but fortunately, 85% of those will be Stage 0-1 very curable cancers. And an additional 2 cancer will be found in 1000 women with a dense breast pattern when screened with whole breast ultrasound. So being recalled for additional imaging is scary but is necessary to finding small curable breast cancers.
If want to understand your risk of breast cancer, take a breast health quiz.
About the Author
Lisa Parro, health enews contributor, is manager of content strategy for Advocate Aurora Health. A former journalist, Lisa has been in health care public relations since 2008 and has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She and her family live in Chicago’s western suburbs.