August 29, 2021

Breast cancer screenings remain down but breast cancer incidence is up in New Mexico

A University of New Mexico Cancer Center oncologist said she and other providers are seeing an increase in the amount of people diagnosed with breast cancer in the state.

Dr. Ursa Brown-Glaberman, medical oncologist at the UNM Cancer Comprehensive Center, said the increase in cancer diagnosis began in fall of 2020.

She said providers “saw what we expected; a whole lot of cancer out there not being detected.”

“As clinicians, we saw a huge wave of diagnosis. We were incredibly busy [in the] fall [of 2020] and spring [of 2021] and there were more patients than we normally see with new breast cancers. We saw women who skipped mammograms for a year. We’ve seen patients with delayed diagnosis and more advanced breast cancer. All of us have seen examples of that.” 

Dr. David Scrase, secretary of New Mexico Human Services Department and acting secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, advised during a press conference last fall to stop delaying annual breast cancer screenings. He said then that he anticipated an increase in cancer diagnosis in 2021 due to the fact that the numbers of women across the state getting mammograms were not as high as they should have been.

Related: Don’t delay breast cancer screenings, say health experts

An official with Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains said that, in addition, many patients are still putting off breast cancer screenings close to year-and-a-half into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Kristina Tocce, vice president, medical director for PPRM, said in an email that despite the fact that employees at Planned Parenthood clinics are masked, vaccinated and have protocols in place to keep patients safe from COVID-19 exposures, PPRM clinics have not seen patients coming in for their wellness exams, which include breast cancer screenings, in “as great of numbers as they usually do.”

“As COVID has waxed and waned, and we have not seen a rebound to the pre-pandemic level of patient visits for preventive health care,” Tocce said. “Nationwide, the number of breast exams and mammograms are down, which means we’re not catching as many breast cancer diagnoses early on. We have early detection tests for breast and cervical cancers, and delaying a visit can be the difference in catching a diagnosis early. The message for everyone to take home is that we can provide health care safely during this pandemic.” 

Dr. Chuck Wiggins, director and principal investigator for the UNM Tumor Registry, said he could not provide hard data on cancer incidence rates in the state because it can take about two years before that data is collected and analyzed.

The UNM Tumor Registry collects cancer incidence data across the state. That enables policy makers and health care officials to track incidence of cancer across New Mexico and the U.S., since every state maintains a tumor registry. Wiggins said the tumor registry data is only complete for 2019.

But, he said he was able to see certain trends from 2020.

“We could see in our records fewer cancer cases coming in for the early months of the pandemic. March through June the cancer diagnoses dropped by about 50 percent from what we would have expected from previous years,” Wiggins said.

Brown-Glaberman said that the current surge in COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant infecting greater numbers of primarily unvaccinated individuals is causing problems for cancer patients.

“I think the challenge for oncologists right now, our patients require a lot of specialty care and services. COVID patients often need the same services. Our resources are overwhelmed by COVID. It is quite challenging for cancer patients,” she said.

Brown-Glaberman said cancer patients may have to wait longer to get a bed or may even have to go home until a bed opens up. She said COVID-19 is causing another barrier to women who often face barriers to care normally.

Brown-Glaberman said COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on cancer patients in another way. When hospitals had to place restrictions on visitors to keep the hospitals safe last year, that also affected cancer patients.

“For cancer patients already isolated and frightened, it’s the most challenging time of their life. They couldn’t have family members come to the hospital with them, they had to come by themselves, they had to receive chemotherapy by themselves. To have to go through with this without a support system, it’s truly heartbreaking,” she said.