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Rutgers expert discusses breast cancer screenings amid pandemic

Deborah Toppmeyer, chief medical officer of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) and director of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center, said there are a variety of measures in place to protect CINJ patients from contracting the coronavirus disease in their facilities.  – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in people delaying or canceling their annual breast cancer screenings, said Deborah Toppmeyer, chief medical officer of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) and director of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center.

Toppmeyer discussed why it is important for patients to still get their screenings and what measures are being taken to keep screenings safe. 

“Screenings dropped almost 90 percent through May of 2020, and people are still reluctant to resume cancer screening,” she said. “I think there's still a lot of concern about (COVID-19), despite the fact that radiology suites are doing an outstanding job (at maintaining safety).”

Toppmeyer said the CINJ is routinely cleaning highly touched surfaces, maintaining social distancing, requiring the use of masks at all times, limiting visitors, screening staff and patients on a daily basis and offering COVID-19 tests to those who are receiving treatments.

“We're really trying to maintain the safety of the patients to make sure that they are comfortable and reassured that we have these policies and procedures in place so that they (aren't) reluctant to come in for our treatments,” she said. 

Toppmeyer said they are doing everything that they can to optimize a safe environment for patients and said patients should not feel hesitant about coming in for their screenings or treatments.

“The risk for patients coming into the (CINJ) for their appointments and treatment is far less than the risk when they go to a grocery store,” she said. “We have screened our staff every day, we all wear masks (and) we never take our masks off, even when we're in the hallway.”

M. Michele Blackwood, chief of breast surgery at the Rutgers CINJ and professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said they do not want anyone to hesitate to have their screenings done because it can save lives.

“I think they should ask the appropriate questions about safety prior to making their (appointment) so that they can feel comfortable,” she said. “We can always offer (a) telemedicine visit at their convenience for a visit with a doctor.”

Toppmeyer stressed the importance of people keeping up with their screenings, especially given the extensive safety measures that are being taken. 

“The diagnoses of breast cancer, compared to last year this time, is down (more than) 50 percent,” Toppmeyer said. “And that's not because the incidence is down, it's because we just haven't screened enough and so women aren't necessarily following up with their pap smears, their mammograms (and) colonoscopies.”

Toppmeyer said this drop could lead to women getting diagnosed at later stages, which is dangerous due to the fact that early detection can save lives.

“That sounds like (something) we all hear, but certainly in diseases like breast cancer (or) like colorectal cancer, (an) earlier diagnosis has a huge impact on stage at the time of diagnosis,” she said.

The progress that has been made concerning the cancer mortality rate may also be at stake if the delay in screenings continues to occur, she said.

“We don't want to take a step (backward) when it comes to the progress that we have made in cancer detection and treatment,” Toppmeyer said. “Screening is safe, (and) there have been policies and procedures put in place to maximize patient safety and reduce the risk ... for (COVID-19) transmission.” 

Even though cases are rising again in many states, Toppmeyer said she believes there is more information about COVID-19, making the country better prepared. 

Toppmeyer said that she hopes the pandemic does not get to the point where all elective procedures are canceled again and cancer operations are delayed. She said people should adhere to the safety recommendations now more than ever.

“We can manage this better,” Toppmeyer said. “We’re more prepared in terms of our PPE (personal protective equipment), and we have our policies and procedures in place, (which makes a) difference.”


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