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How Houston Clinics Are Catching Up With Mammogram Backlog


Early on in the pandemic, we were all told to stop getting medical procedures we didn't really need. As a result, many women delayed their breast cancer screenings. Now the National Cancer Institute is warning that could mean more cancer over the next decade. Here's Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: Carrie Brinsden has always been a stickler for her yearly breast cancer screenings. She has a family history. Her sister died of breast cancer.

CARRIE BRINSDEN: I'm very diligent about getting my mammogram, and I actually do a mammogram and an ultrasound in tandem.

ERNST: Brinsden planned for her routine appointment at the end of March, but they had shut down due to the pandemic.

BRINSDEN: You know, it was kind of like, oh, I need to get this done. I guess at that point, COVID was still the unknown factor. You didn't really know what all was happening. It didn't bother me that it was pushed back too much, but I did want to stay on top of it.

ERNST: They weren't alone. Nearly all breast imaging centers in the Houston area and the country closed. Mammography nearly came to a halt. Top doctors recommended a national moratorium to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some local clinics have closed for more than three months and have seen a 45% drop in screenings so far this year. These providers have had to figure out how to keep preventative medicine going during the pandemic.

ANGELICA ROBINSON: How do we keep the patients safe? How do we keep our colleagues safe? How do we do this in the most effective manner?

ERNST: Dr. Angelica Robinson is a radiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. UTMB was closed for three weeks. And in that time, they got their hands on protective gear, they created protocols to screen for patients and staggered appointments so the waiting rooms aren't full. When they finally did reopen, it was done slowly.

ROBINSON: Patients were a bit leery. Is this a safe exam to do? - which it is safe.

ERNST: Adding to delays, many have also lost their jobs and their health insurance. And mental health has played a big part, too. This year, for so many women, has been marked by...

ROBINSON: Anxiety, not just about the pandemic - but I've had patients say, I just don't even - if you find something, I just don't know if I can mentally deal with that right now.

ERNST: Mammograms at UTMB dropped by 70% from March to June. But since then, UTMB has managed to get back to 100% capacity. Not every facility has been able to recuperate like that. The Rose, a nonprofit breast imaging center in Houston, has seen high demand since they reopened. But social distancing means they can only operate a 75% capacity.

DOROTHY GIBBONS: You can't have people sitting side by side any more than you can go to a restaurant and have it packed. The clinics are the same way.

ERNST: Founder Dorothy Gibbons says they have appointments booked solid for weeks. Breast cancer can be a fast-moving disease, which is why doctors encourage annual exams.

GIBBONS: It's the only thing we have. There is no shot to keep you from getting breast cancer. There is no medication you can take right now. So the only thing we've got is early detection.

ERNST: Doctors say a delay of a few months isn't going to make a huge difference. But a delay of a year or two is when to start worrying. Carrie Brinsden ended up getting her screening only two months late, and that was a good call because her sonogram raised a red flag. She got a biopsy. The diagnosis - stage 1 breast cancer. Brinsden decided to get a double mastectomy.

BRINSDEN: Given my family history and with my sister, I wasn't willing to - I didn't want to be timid. I thought, I'm going to be as aggressive as I can in treating this.

ERNST: Because they caught the cancer early, she got to skip chemotherapy, which was a huge relief.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston.


Sara Willa Ernst