I almost canceled the appointment.
I was due for my annual physical in January, but I was busy — and I felt fine. I could, I reasoned, always do the exam another time.
But I went anyway.
My doctor of more than 20 years and I engaged in our easygoing banter, as he ran through the typical exam. But when he checked my right breast, he stopped and got quiet.
"Have you felt anything unusual during your self exams?"
I had indeed felt a small lump during a recent check — but that wasn't uncommon for me. Something about it, however, made my physician pause. He asked if I'd gotten a mammogram recently.
I was due to have one in April.
"Get one now," he said.
That was the start of a tumultuous month. A mammogram, an ultrasound, a fine needle biopsy, another mammogram later — and the results remained inconclusive. The next step, which happened late last month: a lumpectomy, to remove the tumor, examine its pathology and determine what I was facing.
As I went over my history with one of the nurses, she said something that struck me: "I'm glad you went to the doctor. Too many people aren't going nowadays."
In the early days of the pandemic, many Americans canceled medical appointments and regular screenings, more worried about COVID-19 than cancer, heart disease or other concerns. Doctors hoped that trend would reverse as vaccinations picked up and COVID restrictions were lifted.
But a recent study from the Prevent Cancer Foundation found that as of January, half of Americans who had scheduled in-person appointments either missed, postponed, or canceled them. What's more, 20% of females and trans males had missed a mammogram appointment. Among those 55 and over, who are more at risk, 32% missed a mammogram as of January 2022 — just 15% said they missed a mammogram in December 2020, before vaccines were readily available.
Respondents cited the desire to prevent exposure to COVID-19 as their top reason for missing such screenings. Indeed, in the weeks since my doctor discovered the lump and I told friends of my plans for scans or tests, several said they had not had their regular screenings or checkups since the pandemic began or hadn't kept up with their regular schedules when it came to their medical care.
Such delays in screenings can have a deadly impact. National Cancer Institute executive director Norman "Ned" Sharpless has estimated that over the next decade, the U.S. will see 10,000 additional deaths from colorectal or breast cancer due to deferred care or delayed diagnosis. That estimate, he said, is conservative.
Across Long Island, there are ample opportunities for free mammograms and other screenings, whether through mobile units or at various public events. But some people will need some encouragement and reminding to get back on track. Amid all the public service announcements regarding COVID-19, it might be wise for officials to begin a campaign to remind residents to handle their non-COVID medical needs, too.
I am one of the lucky ones. After a relatively smooth surgery and recovery, and an anxious 10 days of waiting for results, I learned that my tumor was benign, that the margins were clear, and that I was cancer-free. I was told to come back in six months for another mammogram and ultrasound.
I've already made the appointment — and I won't cancel it.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.