medical professional in lab coat holds pink ribbon

COVID-19 And Breast Cancer Screenings

Why the Pandemic Isn’t a Reason to Delay Preventative Care

You may have noticed people wearing pink this October to highlight National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The tradition, which recognizes survivors and victims of the disease, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of early breast cancer detection through regular screenings. Every year, one in eight women in America develops breast cancer, and more than 40,000 women nationwide lose their battle with the disease. In Wisconsin, breast cancer was the number one cancer diagnosed in the state in 2017. Breast cancer diagnoses haven’t stopped as a result of the pandemic, and neither should your preventative screenings.

When should I start scheduling regular mammograms?

“During October, we want to bring awareness to the importance of regular mammograms for women,” said Nina Desai, MD, radiation oncologist at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton. “American Cancer Society guidelines state that average-risk women should have the choice to start annual mammograms starting at age 40, and they are recommended in women 45 and over. I fully support these guidelines and favor that women receive an annual mammogram beginning at age 40.”

She defined an average-risk woman as “a woman who does not have a personal history of breast cancer, strong family history of breast cancer, certain genetic mutations or a history of chest radiation when they were younger.”

On the other hand, a person who has one of those concerns would be considered at high-risk.

“Those patients should have a discussion with their primary care provider or oncologist, if they have one, about when they should begin getting mammograms,” explained Dr. Desai. “High-risk women should begin receiving mammograms or other breast exams earlier than age 40.”

Why is early breast cancer detection so important?

“Early detection of cancers and high-risk lesions when they are smaller and haven’t spread to other areas of the body can allow for potentially less aggressive treatment and impact a patient’s prognosis,” she said. “We know detecting cancers early has a significant impact on outcomes.”

What are the warning signs?

The warning signs of possible breast cancer in women and men include:

  • A new lump or mass in the breast or underarm
  • A change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk (including blood)
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking or thickened
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the underarm area

“We can’t forget that men can also develop breast cancer,” she said. “It’s important they pay attention to any changes in their breast tissue and seek medical attention if they observe changes.”

Can I detect breast cancer with a self-exam?

“I am always a proponent for women to be familiar with how their breasts typically look and feel,” said Dr. Desai. “While the benefit of self-breast exams in research studies is unclear, I feel it is really important that women are aware of their breasts and call their doctor if they notice changes. Then mammography or other imaging can determine if there’s a need for further workup.”

That said, many times the original breast cancer tumor can be too small to be detected by touch, which is why regular mammograms are so important.

Is it safe to come in for a cancer screening right now?

“I realize some patients may have concerns about coming into clinics or hospitals for fear of exposure to COVID-19,” said Dr. Desai, “But I’d strongly encourage these people to maintain their screening appointments and have a discussion with their physician about the risks and benefits if they are concerned.”

Dr. Desai noted that people should feel confident coming to ThedaCare clinics and hospitals. ThedaCare has gone to great lengths to make facilities safe so we can provide care for patients and families, including:

  • Requiring anyone who enters a ThedaCare facility to wear a mask
  • Asking patients to maintain six feet of distance from all other patients
  • Making sure our physicians, nurses, caregivers, support staff and infectious disease experts continue to stay informed with the latest information and treatment protocols
  • Continuing to care for COVID-19 patients at our respiratory care clinics
  • Asking patients a series of screening questions about any possible exposure to COVID-19 and if they have any symptoms – cough, fever, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell or problems with vomiting or diarrhea. If those symptoms are present, the appointment should be rescheduled.
  • Limiting visitors to minimize the risk of exposure

When can I discontinue having mammograms?

It is important for women to talk with their primary care providers about the continuation of regular mammograms. Many women are very active and healthy well into advanced age. In those cases, if a woman’s life expectancy is greater than 10 years, continuing annual mammograms might be appropriate. If there is a health benefit for the patient to get the screening, have the screening detect something, get treatment and then live long enough to see the benefit, then having the mammogram is worthwhile.

“We want to reiterate the importance of every woman receiving regular breast cancer screenings,” said Dr. Desai. “That’s one of the main ways we can lower the number of breast cancer deaths. We can change the numbers. Encourage your family and friends to have regular screenings.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program provides breast and cervical cancer screenings and diagnostic services to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women across the United States. Learn more about this program by visiting

Nina Desai, MD
Radiation Oncologist