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Watch now: Decatur health care providers urge mammograms for early detection

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Decatur Memorial Hospital Breast Center's Karen Oesch talks about how important early breast detection. READ MORE HERE.

DECATUR — A lot of things were put on pause in 2020.

From March to June 2020, said Karen Oesch, mammography coordinator of Decatur Memorial Hospital Breast Center, they only did mammograms if the patient had symptoms.

“Once we got approval to let people come back, we made hundreds of phone calls,” she said. “(We told them) we're wearing masks, checking temps, let's get you scheduled. Many of them did, but some were still reluctant and said, 'I might just skip a year.'”

Oesch's concern, she said, is that when they skip a year, the next year it's easy to skip again, and annual mammograms beginning at age 40 are recommended by the American Cancer Society and the American College of Radiology.

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Karen Oesch, mammography coordinator, shows off a 3-D mammography machine at Decatur Memorial Hospital Breast Center.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Oesch said mammograms are an important regular screening, too important to skip. Early detection can make all the difference, and a mammogram can detect tiny changes you couldn't feel in a monthly self-exam.

“We see many people who have skipped four or five years and now they have a lump and it's like, that's probably been growing a couple of years,” she said. “The reality is, had they come every year, we would have caught it when it was little, pea-sized, now it's a the size of a golf ball.”

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, you should get a baseline mammogram even earlier, at 30 or 35, Oesch said. If your grandmother, mother or aunt had breast cancer, you are at a higher risk. Most insurance carriers cover the cost as preventive care, and if you don't have insurance, there are programs that will help you get a mammogram anyway.

But you also have to have a doctor to send it to, Oesch said.

“What if we find something wrong?” she said. “You have to have someone willing to say, 'She's my patient, I'll order additional tests.' Some patients don't have a doctor, but we have doctors here that will accept new patients, and I also tell people Crossing (Healthcare) will take you. They have good providers, and we're so blessed to have Crossings. Get a doctor. Everybody needs checkups.”

HSHS St. Mary's Melissa Gosda talks about fear of breast exam

Right after things opened up in summer 2020, said Melissa Gosda, mammography technologist for HSHS St. Mary's Hospital, patient numbers were still low, but by the end of the summer, people came back.

“We still have patients coming now who are trying to catch up from last year,” she said. “It's either out of fear, or they put it off because they weren't symptomatic, or they thought it's not a test I have to do right now. The big thing, especially with screenings, is you can catch it sometimes years before you would be symptomatic.”

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Melissa Gosda, mammography technologist, looks at preliminary imaging of a mammogram at HSHS St. Mary's Hospital.

One thing a mammogram can catch early is breast calcification, which Gosda described as tiny grains of sand. You can't feel those, but they're an early sign of cancer. A 3-D mammogram, which is what she does for all patients, shows that. A 3-D mammogram is almost like a CAT scan and helps doctors find more cancers earlier, which makes it easier to treat.

It does take a few seconds longer to get a 3-D mammogram, and while some women worry about the discomfort of the compression and also fear the results, Gosda said, it's better to know.

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“We try to get back to you that afternoon or the next day to let you know if you need to come back in for something additional; we try to get you back in in the next few days,” she said. “Pain-wise, we're always checking on you to see if you're doing OK. It should only be a little discomfort and should not be painful.”

And like Oesch said, the American Cancer Society has a recommendation for what age to start getting regular mammograms, but there is no upper age limit at which you can stop. Early detection is important no matter your age.

One thing to remember during this time of the pandemic, she added, is that if you've had a COVID-19 vaccine, you should wait four to six weeks after your second dose before getting a mammogram to avoid a false positive. The vaccine can inflame the lymph nodes, which are also checked during a mammogram.

Dr. Daniel Roubein, chair of the department of radiology at HSHS St. Mary's, said the same rule applies no matter which type of vaccine you get: Pfizer, Moderna or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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