Breast cancer risks rise during pandemic with fewer screenings, increase in alcohol use

CLEVLAND, Ohio (WJW) – Coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives; schools and businesses shut down, travel cut off, elective procedures put on hold. And that has created a crisis within a crisis; women aren’t getting their mammograms.

“Patients have just kind of put on the back burner, ” says Dr. Stephanie Valente, a breast surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. “The numbers are still down.”

Dr. Valente understands the concerns that kept us at home at the start of the pandemic but warns that a delay in diagnosis could mean much larger fears to be faced later. 

“Unfortunately we have seen some women … delayed care by months. They felt a mass, hoping it was going to go away, and by the time they came in, it was a little bit larger or advanced than they hoped it would have been.”

Cindy McDonald, who lives in Summit County, is one of the patients who put it off her screening because of the pandemic.

“When it came due, I was just anxious about going into a hospital.”

Mammograms detect about 85 percent of breast cancers, the majority of which are not hereditary. Doctor Megan Miller at University Hospital’s Seidman Cancer Center stresses, early detection is key.

“Most of our breast cancers are easily treated, especially when they’re diagnosed early.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Ohio women. 

After months of delaying, Cindy scheduled her screening. 

 “It really came down to the realization that, you have to take care of yourself. You can’t just sit in the house and run away from the entire world.”

She had a scare in the past, a couple of spots doctors like to check regularly. Breast Cancer Awareness Month did exactly what it was intended to in her case. She thought to herself,

“You don’t mess with that. You don’t mess with mammograms.”

Another impact that coronavirus is having is on preventive measures. Exercise is crucial but when the pandemic rolled in and gyms shut down, regular routines fell off.

Dr. Valente offered this advice, “I definitely encourage women to take care of themselves … looking toward YouTube channels, Facebook groups where women get together and hold each other accountable.”

Screenings and exercise are down but alcohol consumption is up. A new study found that Americans, particularly women, are drinking 17 percent more during the pandemic. 

Heavy drinking among women, which is four or more drinks in a day, has risen 41 percent.

Dr. Miller warns, this is a dangerous trend.

“We know from historical studies and epidemiological studies that alcohol can certainly increase the breast cancer risk. We’re talking about more than seven drinks per week. “

Prevention is within your power, and she says it is not too late to take steps that could impact your risk.

“The behaviors we’re seeing now we won’t know the effects of those for years to come. “