Breast Screening Must Go On, Despite COVID

Breast cancer hasn’t stopped for COVID-19. And neither should our efforts to keep track of our breast health through screening.

Early diagnosis is one of the best tools we have to achieve good outcomes for breast cancer patients.

— Kathleen Bell, manager of the CIBC Breast Assessment Centre (BAC) at the Juravinski Cancer Centre

Bell said that from mid-March until the end of June, Ontario Health – Cancer Care Ontario (OH-CCO) advised that the province’s cancer screening programs would be deferred to help decompress the health system and prepare for a potential increased demand on hospital resources. The resumption of organized cancer screening now requires catching up on past-due screening procedures.

That affected those who had received letters from OH-CCO for preventive mammography screening every two years, as well as former breast cancer patients who are generally screened every year. Bell said, however, that the centre continued to provide diagnostic services to those with symptoms, as well as testing and imaging required before surgery.

The Hamilton Spectator recently reported that about 5,000 more people skipped scheduled tests and procedures at Hamilton Health Sciences facilities between April 1 and August 31, compared to the same period last year. That raises concerns that postponed diagnostic testing and care could overwhelm the local health care system.

Since July, though, the BAC has been ramping back up, with a gradual return to 100 per cent capacity.

“We spent that time making sure it is safe for you to come back,” Bell said. “The pause was useful for us to understand the impact of COVID and how to best keep people safe.”

She says there have been no-shows and cancellations, and that she has heard some hesitancy in coming back. More often, though, people simply may not book an appointment.

Bell points out the BAC has a separate entrance, with no walk-through to the hospital and cancer centre. Everyone who enters must wear a face mask and staff has increased hand-washing, reduced the number of people in waiting rooms, stopped requiring patients to use the change rooms and change into gowns. The centre is also open on Saturdays, to allow for fewer patients each day and more cleaning time between patients.

The BAC sees between 15,000 and 17,000 individual patients annually for tests including mammography, breast ultrasound and breast biopsies. Screening mammograms usually account for more than 11,000 of those tests in a normal year.

Individuals who wish to schedule a screening mammogram through the Ontario Breast Screening Program (OBSP) can contact the BAC directly at 905-389-0101 to schedule an appointment. In particular, the BAC encourages women to call if they are over age 50 and have never had a mammogram, if they have been told to come back every year for screening or if they are otherwise overdue for their mammogram.