JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Like everything else, hospitals’ October breast cancer awareness campaigns have been redefined in 2020, taking on new significance during a global pandemic.

While pink-out games and other public awareness events may not be happening, or happening with reduced crowds, the overriding message for women to get their mammograms is more important that ever.

Screening mammograms were halted for several weeks in the spring as the coronavirus surge shut down elective procedures, and many women continue to avoid coming to health care facilities due to fear of COVID-19 exposure.

“When this pandemic first hit, a lot of my ladies couldn’t get their mammograms,” Johnstown breast surgeon Dr. Patti Ann Stefanick said. “We just started back up in June, but some deferred their appointments. They didn’t want to go anywhere. They didn’t want to come to me. They just stayed home. I’m afraid some will skip a year.”

As new COVID-19 cases stabilized, programs at Conemaugh Health System have returned to full operation. Modified scheduling to prevent crowded waiting rooms and other safety measures are in place.

“We don’t know when COVID-19 is going to end, but cancer patients have to come in,” breast surgeon Dr. Renée Arlow said at Conemaugh East Hills outpatient center. “You need to be seen, and you are going to be seen.”

Getting that word out has been challenged by the pandemic, nurse navigator Dena Diehl said at Indiana Regional Medical Center in Indiana, Pa.

Through its M. Dorcas Clark MD Women’s Imaging Center, the hospital held special events to draw attention to the services, including café gatherings and a special day to reach the Amish community. Most of those – along with the center’s cancer support group meetings – have been canceled to avoid large gatherings.

Mondays were walk-in days for screening mammograms, but that has been put on hold to keep waiting rooms safe.

“Walk-in days were very popular,” Diehl said. “People miss them.”

At Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber, Pa., breast surgeon Dr. Deborah Sims said patient safety has been the No. 1 priority.

“We opened very cautiously.” Sims said. “We have been calling patients back since June and July. I am seeing patients I should have seen earlier.”

Early detection is still the key to surviving breast cancer and an annual screening mammogram is still the best tool for detection.

“Don’t wait because of COVID,” Sims said. “We will see you.”

Windber was the first area hospital to offer COVID-19 antibody tests. All patients at the breast center are offered the test, with an option to participate in research through Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber.

Antibody tests show an individual’s prior exposure to the coronavirus causing COVID-19, even if there were no symptoms at the time. The research institute will periodically re-test participants to see how long the antibodies are present.

Hospitals are also testing all patients for active coronavirus infections prior to surgery, said Dr. Dianna Craig, a breast surgeon at UPMC Somerset and UPMC Altoona.

The Pittsburgh-based hospital group shut down screenings and elective surgery for several weeks, but has seen women coming back for care following the reopening, Craig said.

“We are back at full steam,” she said. “It was just delayed a little bit. You need to get out the word that it is safe. They need to come back. You don’t need to be afraid.”

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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