How long is too long for a mammogram?

SAN ANTONIO – How long is too long if you haven’t gotten your mammogram during the coronavirus pandemic? Doctors are answering that question now that elective procedures and medical screenings have been allowed for the past few months.

According to KSAT Community Partner University Health, for many women, the delay in getting the screening on time puts them at risk of a more advanced stage of breast cancer.

In an effort at full disclosure, I am one of those women. I was due to get a mammogram this spring after being overdue for this two-year regular screening program. I assumed that since there was no history of breast cancer in my family, I didn’t need to be as vigilant.

Not so — according to the lead interpreter at the University Health Breast Center, Dr. Pamela Otto, who said, “I would love to agree with you there, but 85% of women who develop breast cancer have no family history and no risk factors.”

So much for family genetics being in my favor.

There’s another seriously concerning factor in delaying your mammogram. According to new statistics from University Health, there’s been a nearly 89% drop during the pandemic. Fewer mammogram screens mean fewer biopsies, and that means that fewer breast cancers are ultimately diagnosed.

Dr. Otto, who also serves as a professor and chair of Radiology at UT Health, says 30% of the time, a biopsy will result in a breast cancer diagnosis.

“If we’re not biopsying, we’re not diagnosing cancers, and so we know that that number will be lower,” she said.

Clinics and mobile screening units were significantly sidelined at the height of the pandemic in South Texas. Today, they are operating and seeing as many patients as they can.

I used the mobile health unit parked at the WellMed center on McCullough near downtown. It can see 20 patients a day, but you must make an appointment. Sanitation and care are in place to ensure you do not share air and space with more people than necessary.

“Extra cleaning and more space between patients and more time to position, so you don’t have to be quite as close,” Otto said.

As medical experts get the word out about the massive drop in screenings and the potential numbers of undetected breast cancer, they are preparing to deal with a possible overabundance of patients. In fact, it’s something they would welcome.

The timing of all this can be confusing since there are so many different recommendations. The American College of Radiology recommends that women start yearly mammograms starting at age 40. That’s also University Health’s guideline. But the American Cancer Society now says at 45-55, women should get a mammogram every year, then do one every other year after 55. And you can’t leave out the U.S. Preventative Task Force that wants you to start at age 50 and get a mammogram every other year.

In the end, it’s a question for you and your doctor to decide.

If you need more information on how, when and where you can get a mammogram appointment today, click here or call 210-358-7020. The mobile unit, which is usually busiest during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and in November, is expected to stay on duty full-time to help women catch up on this necessary medical procedure.

On a final note, my preliminary screens looked clean — thank heavens.