How to Stay Focused on Breast Health During a Pandemic

10/30/2020

Breast health still needs to be a priority during a pandemic

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

Lots of distractions and anxieties have filled our thoughts since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Understandably so, routine medical care and preventive screenings may have fallen a few spots down on your list of items to worry about. The same is true for many of your patients.

But it’s important to remember the importance of screenings, including screenings for breast cancer. 

“Cancer does not know that there’s a pandemic going on,” says Caroline Elistin, DNP, MSN-Ed, ARNP, FNP-BC, assistant dean of faculty at Chamberlain University and a family nurse practitioner who works in medical oncology. 

Five tips to stay focused on breast health during a pandemic:

   1. Make up for lost time

When the pandemic began in the spring of this year, many people were forced to delay screenings because medical facilities were canceling elective procedures and other types of routine care. Others were too anxious to visit a doctor’s office or hospital during the early months of the pandemic, when so much was still unknown. 

But experts say that it’s important to stop putting off preventive care.

Suggest to your patients that they go ahead and reschedule the mammograms that were cancelled earlier this year. Or, if they haven’t scheduled one this year, it’s time to go ahead and do that. 

“Let this be the first thing that they get caught back up on,” says Lori Hubbard, MSN, BSN, RN, a clinical instructor in the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing. “It’s so quick and easy to do. If you’re getting caught back up on your screenings and well visits, go ahead and get this one out of the way.” 

   2. Talk to your patients about safety concerns

At the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, nurse practitioner Angie Larsh, ARNP, takes time to outline her facility’s precautions to alleviate any fears that patients may have about coming in for a mammogram (or other imaging test). 

“It’s just talking them through what we’re doing,” she explains. 

For example, she can tell patients how the staff are all wearing masks (and in  many cases, eye protection), and more time is allotted between appointments so fewer people are in the facility at the same time. Additionally, the facility can conduct initial screenings by phone to minimize the amount of in-person time required. 

Elistin has also spent time with patients, explaining how the mammography equipment at her facility is cleaned and how the staff all take all the appropriate precautions.

“We are doing everything we can to protect you so that you feel safe,” she tells them. 

   3. Prioritize self-exams

Women can and should still perform regular self-exams on their breasts at home, regardless of whether or not they’re able to get a mammogram. 

Nurses can promote the importance of these self-exams and educate patients on what to look for. For example, Breastcancer.org advises women to watch out for signs such as dimpling or puckering to the skin, changes to the nipple, discharge, and redness, soreness or swelling, as well as lumps. By doing these exams regularly, women will become familiar with how their breasts usually look or feel. 

“The more you know your body, the quicker you’re going to pick up on changes,” says Hubbard. 

   4. Encourage patients to not dismiss signs that something may be wrong

Susan Feild, BSN, RN, CN-BN, breast health nurse navigator with The Breast Center at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland, recommends telling your patients to trust their instincts if they feel that something is not quite right with their breasts.

“If you have a breast health concern, call your physician right away,” she says. “If you’re still uncomfortable about meeting in person because of the pandemic, talk to your doctor about the possibility of a telemedicine or online visit.” 

   5. Don’t ignore your own breast health

Nurses have earned an excellent reputation for their dedication to taking care of other people. Unfortunately, that means that their own needs often take a back seat.

“We don’t take care of ourselves. We take care of everybody else,” is how Elistin puts it. 

You’ve been educating your community about the importance of breast health, but have you taken your own advice? Have you had a clinical breast exam this year? Are you overdue for a mammogram? It’s time to prioritize your own breast health. 

“We need to also recommend that we need to take care of ourselves and do our own self-exams monthly…and listen to that patient education ourselves, as well,” says Elistin. 

Try to remember all the advice you’ve given to patients about why they need to be aware of their breast cancer risk, the importance of regular screenings, and self-exams.

As Feild puts it, “Knowledge—especially when it comes to your health—is power.”

 

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