Study finds women are neglecting important cancer screenings because of fear of contracting Covid-19

Research shows that more people continue to neglect their health because of the fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus if they visit health facilities.
Research shows that more people continue to neglect their health because of the fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus if they visit health facilities.
Image: 123RF/ILLIA URIADNIKOV

In the past 18 months, most women have neglected to have important cancer screenings due to the fear of contracting the coronavirus while visiting health facilities. 

This has been the case for most South Africans since the pandemic broke out in March last year.

Transport restrictions and fear of coronavirus infection were among the reasons for a big drop in HIV/Aids and TB patients collecting medication during the first hard lockdown.

Researchers warned that missing treatments could lead to people developing resistance to medications and set back treatment campaigns by years.

Surveys by the healthcare organisation Right to Care and the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) show declines of about 50% in medication collection during the lockdown.

AHRI director Prof Willem Hanekom said its research in KwaZulu-Natal, which includes a survey on people accessing chronic medicines for HIV, TB and other diseases, showed that two weeks after the lockdown began, nearly 50% reported they could not access their medication.

Last year, doctors working at public hospitals in the country wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa urging his administration to focus on non-Covid-19 health care. Children going without immunisations, pregnant mothers avoiding antenatal care bookings and a large number of patients with chronic comorbidities not presenting for treatment were among the repercussions of the public's fear of contracting the coronavirus.

And a recent survey by 1st for Women confirms just that.

The survey found that many women have not had their annual cancer screenings over the last 18 months, due to the lockdown and fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus as well as financial pressure.

Only 22% of those surveyed had been for a Pap smear to screen for ovarian or cervical cancer and just 14% had been for a mammogram to screen for breast cancer.

Doctors recommend that you start going for regular pap smears from the age of 21, even if you are not yet sexually active.

If your results are normal, you only need to repeat the screening every three years.

Annual screening mammograms are recommended for all women over 40, regardless of symptoms or family history.

According to the American Cancer Society, early-stage breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of 99%. Later-stage cancer has a survival rate of 27%. More than 75% of women who have breast cancer have no family history of cancer.

“Early detection of cancer is key for quick treatment and a better chance of recovery. If you are experiencing symptoms which concern you, it is vital to have them investigated by a health professional as soon as possible. It is also important to know what screening options are available to you,” Seugnette van Wyngaard, head of 1st for Women Insurance, which offers a dread disease product that covers a wide range of women-related cancers.

Screening tests can help identify signs of developing cancer before symptoms appear. For example, when you have a Pap smear, your gynaecologist may tell you that you have been identified with precancerous cells.

Dr Liat Malek, a specialist radiologist at the Breast Wellness Centre in Johannesburg, said that there has been a drastic decline of routine screening mammograms reported around the world.

“The result has been that this year we have been diagnosing more late-stage cancers/advanced disease.

“A screening mammogram is the routine examination of the breasts in women who have no signs or symptoms of cancer, using low dose X-ray imaging. This is the most effective way of diagnosing early breast cancers and therefore reducing breast cancer deaths, with effective and less aggressive treatment,” Malek said.

Regular screening mammograms allow the doctors to discover subtle changes in the breast by comparing them to the previous years. These subtle changes to the breast pattern may be the first sign of cancer developing and help catch cancer early before it is even symptomatic.

“Due to the fact that women are staying away from their routine mammograms, our practice is seeing more women with symptoms, most commonly a lump in the breast, and more advanced stages of disease than had they come a year ago,” Malek said.

“Being diagnosed with a dread disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Regular screenings mean early detection and treatment, and dread disease cover means you can focus on your health rather than the financial burden of treatment costs,” Van Wyngaard said.

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