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2022 May

Don't Skip Routine Screenings

Two local health experts remind us why we need to schedule routine screenings.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women’s health?

Phyllis Stoneburner: This pandemic has been so difficult. Everyone’s world has been impacted from lockdowns and closures to loss of jobs and loss of loved ones. Our health has taken a toll­—physically and mentally. People have put off regular physician appointments. They have not received care for new issues. A recent study from the University of Kansas showed that over 9.4 million cancer screenings did not occur during the pandemic—with the top three involving breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. This is a huge public health crisis.

Teresa Sparks: Women are often the caregivers in the family, putting other’s needs before their own. Many women missed their annual cancer screenings, such as mammograms and Pap tests. When these important tests are delayed, a diagnosis of cancer at a later stage may be the result. Unfortunately, late diagnosis may result in premature death.

Among the clients in our Every Woman’s Life program, we have seen an increase in abnormal mammogram results and breast cancer diagnosis. Many of the women recently enrolled in our program have not had a mammogram since before the start of the pandemic.

Is there a segment of the population especially affected by these delayed screenings?

Teresa Sparks: Data has shown a drop in the number of screenings in people who are insured by Medicare. Also, uninsured women and those with Medicaid coverage seem to be more likely to have missed timely screening tests. That is why it is so important to get the word out to all women that it’s time to get back on track with routine medical care and preventative services such as cancer screening tests.

How often are women advised to have a mammogram?

Teresa Sparks: Yearly, beginning at age 40. Some women begin at an earlier age if they have a strong family history of breast cancer. There are many resources in the Tidewater area to ensure women have a yearly mammogram, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. The hospital systems in the Tidewater region have policies/programs to support low-income, uninsured clients.

In addition, the following locations offer free mammogram and Pap tests through the Virginia Department of Health’s Every Woman’s Life program – Chesapeake Health Department, Chesapeake Care Clinic, Hampton Health Department, Southeastern Virginia Health System, Western Tidewater Free Clinic, and Riverside Cancer Services.

What message do you want to communicate to women regarding breast health?

Teresa Sparks: As women, we need to prioritize our own health and make time for an annual mammogram. Sometimes, lack of awareness or misinformation contributes to not making one’s own health a priority.

Many women do not realize that a doctor’s order is not required when scheduling a routine screening mammogram. Knowing this helps facilitate timely screening and ease of scheduling. Early detection of breast cancer is key in reducing mortality rates.

There are higher incidences of late-stage detection of breast cancer and, consequently, higher breast cancer mortality rates in Black women who live in the Tidewater area. We are especially focusing our breast awareness outreach to Black women with goals of improving screening rates, decreasing late-stage diagnosis of breast cancer, and reducing mortality rates.

Removing barriers to care, educating women on the importance of annual screenings, and improving access in a culturally responsive way are all important steps in meeting these goals.

What do women need to do?

Phyllis Stoneburner: Get screened! If you have missed these important screenings—reschedule. If you have never had one of these screenings and it is time, get it scheduled. Time is truly critical for diagnosing these types of cancers. Early diagnosis is so important to positive outcomes.

Know your family history. This will help you learn about your risk. If you have family members who have had breast, cervical, or colon cancers, then you need to talk to you doctor. This information will help your doctor develop a screening plan specifically for you. It will also help you and your doctor evaluate the need for genetic testing.

Know what is normal for you! It is important to examine your breasts—not only what your breasts feel like, but also what your breasts look like. The most common signs of breast cancer are a change in the look or feel of the breast or nipple or nipple discharge.

Teresa Sparks: Make healthy lifestyle choices. Be physically active. Maintain a healthy weight. Eat fruits and vegetables. Limit drinking alcohol. Stop smoking. All of these can help reduce your risk.

Your health is important.

Teresa Sparks is a Registered Nurse who has been Case Manager of Every Woman’s Life Program at the Chesapeake Health Department for 18 years. Every Woman’s Life provides free breast and cervical cancer screening tests to eligible uninsured women and those with Medicaid coverage.

Phyllis Stoneburner is a Registered Nurse and the Executive Director of Healthy Chesapeake, Inc.

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