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C.A.R.E. - 2021-02-28

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‘CANCER DOESN’T WAIT FOR COVID’

The Journey

By Elayne Smith Lowe Make early detection a priority As the emergence of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, turned 2020 into a year of quarantines, masks, and social distancing, it also threw cancer prevention and cancer services into turmoil. By mid-April 2020, cancer screenings performed nationwide was down between 86 to 94 percent, according to findings released in May 2020 by the Epic Health Research Network. Cancer diagnoses and cancer care statistics continued to show a downward trend compared to 2019 through the following months, according to a study published in JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics. Sadly, this isn’t an indication of good news. “It’s not because we’ve gotten so good at eliminating cancer, but because testing isn’t happening,” said Tim Tokarski, senior manager of community development for the American Cancer Society in New Mexico. As shutdowns and fears of contracting COVID-19 drove people away from medical facilities, cancer screenings were sidelined. Tokarski said this lack of preventative care could mean fewer people starting cancer treatment in earlier phases when survival rates are higher. “Whenever you delay diagnosis, you risk a later-stage diagnosis,” Tokarski said. “I encourage that to be prioritized again for people.” Francie Healey, 50, had to make the tough decision considering her routine mammogram. She had to choose whether to face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or to miss a potential cancer diagnosis. As a psychotherapist, she said she wrote down the considerations, her own risk factors, and how she would feel not knowing she had cancer versus potentially exposing herself to COVID-19. Ultimately, she decided getting a mammogram was more important than her fears of the coronavirus. “It’s really looking it in the eye and having that hard conversation with yourself,” Healey said. “I just didn’t feel like it was good to put my long-term health on hold.” Healey decided to get screened in January as the pandemic continued and vaccines were just starting to be distributed. She said she called the imaging place and listened to their protocols before making the final decision. “Create a space to not allow that automatic fear of Covid make the response for you,” Healey said. “Include your whole self in the decision-making, not the fragments. And be brave.” While Healey said the decision is ultimately very personal, the safety protocols in place at the imaging facility helped her feel more confident in her decision. These medical facility protocols include fewer patients, strict cleaning policies, and screenings ahead of appointments. At the New Mexico Cancer Center, chief executive officer Barbara McAneny, M.D., said she tells her staff to act as if every person they meet has COVID-19. This way, they respond with the strictest safety measures. “Cancer doesn’t wait for Covid,” McAneny said. “I’d rather somebody mask up and gown up and figure out what they have so they can start treatment rather than stay home out of fear.” As the pandemic evolves, it’s important for patients to check with facilities and programs about any changes to services. Currently the New Mexico Cancer Center has added protective measures, including patient screenings, increased cleaning and universal mask requirements. For the time being, guests can’t attend chemotherapy sessions or check-up appointments, but caregivers can join doctor discussions over the phone. When possible, health providers use telehealth for assessments and routine check-ups. Dr. McAneny said the increased use of telemedicine, providing care over the phone or by video, has helped reach people who are struggling to decide whether they need to go in for an appointment, but it doesn’t replace in-person care. “Telemedicine is a tool,” McAneny said. “It’s like my stethoscope. I can’t see in your ears with my stethoscope. It’s great for some things but completely useless for others.” Besides medical assessments, virtual tools have enabled providers to continue offering some mental health services and support services, such as the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery peer program and local support groups held on Zoom. Other programs that require more in-person interactions have been suspended due to the pandemic, including many lodging and transportation aids. Tokarski said while the American Cancer Society has put its Road to Recovery program on hold until further notice, the organization has provided funding to cancer centers to help their patients afford gas or pay for rides. “If you’re in treatment and struggling around access, reach out to your provider before you stop treatment,” Tokarski said. “There are resources available. Sometimes it takes a bit of creativity.” Ask your provider about: • COVID-19 safety protocols • Transportation assistance • Virtual offerings • Program and service changes

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