Breast Cancer Screening and Care: Don’t Let COVID-19 Stop You!

Amy is a 37-year-old professional living in NYC who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She is currently undergoing treatment at NYU Langone Health. You can read more about her here.

Ruth Oratz, MD, is a medical oncologist who specializes in treating people with all stages of breast cancer, and those at an increased risk of developing cancer. She also co-leads clinical trials that foster new medical approaches and treatments for breast cancer.

Richard Shapiro, MD, provides advanced surgical care to patients with breast cancer and other forms of cancer. Through personalized treatments provided in a compassionate environment, his goal is to help people return to their everyday lives as quickly as possible. Dr. Shapiro also conducts clinical research that involves people with breast cancer and melanoma.

Hi from Amy!
This week, I'm excited to introduce you to Dr. Ruth Oratz and Dr. Richard Shapiro, two key members of my care team. These renowned breast cancer experts have both spent their entire careers at NYU Langone Health.

My colleagues at NYU Langone recently Zoomed with these remarkable doctors to interview them about breast cancer screening, early detection, and treatment in the context of COVID-19.

My biggest takeaway from their interview is: Don’t let COVID-19 stop you from getting the screenings and treatments you need! Dr. Oratz and Dr. Shapiro also share reassuring info surrounding some common fears patients have about navigating the breast cancer experience. I definitely related to what they said. I bet you will, too.

A Q&A with Dr. Shapiro and Dr. Oratz of NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center

The pandemic seems to be scaring people away from visiting their doctors and hospitals for non-COVID-19 care. What advice do you have for people who might be afraid to come in right now for breast cancer support?

Dr. Shapiro: It’s probably safer to come to our facility for diagnostic testing or surgery than it is to go to the supermarket. We are very careful about people coming and going. Everyone wears a mask and practices social distancing, of course, but we do even more than that: We make sure that every patient and health care worker who enters our building is free of COVID-19 symptoms.

Dr. Oratz: At the start of the pandemic, some patients did delay care by a few months. That’s perfectly understandable. But we know how to deal with the virus now, and we want people to be comfortable coming to us and getting their routine screening tests. If they have any concerns about their health, they should let us know right away. If they’re due for that mammogram or colonoscopy, we’re here. We’re open for your needs, and we are really prioritizing our patients’ safety.

Ruth Oratz, MD, provides personalized treatment to patients with breast cancer at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center.

Dr. Shapiro: Exactly. If any of your readers have been putting off breast cancer screening or treatment, I hope they’ll come in. We’re all here, and we’re as safe as we can possibly be. It is safe for patients to resume their care, and it’s a great time to get started.

And for those who aren’t due for a mammogram, when else should they seek treatment?

Dr. Oratz: Any person who feels an abnormality in the breast, under the arm, or in the lower neck region, or thinks something looks weird, should come get checked out. Don’t ignore it! If the nipple changes or inverts or becomes crusty, the contour of the breast changes, the skin looks different, or there’s a new asymmetry—come see us, even if there’s pain or tenderness. Some people think that if a symptom is painful, it can’t be cancer, but that’s not always the case. Pain doesn’t mean it’s cancer, but it does mean you should get checked out.

Let’s talk about treatment after receiving a diagnosis. To those readers who have breast cancer and are fearful of getting treatment, can you offer your perspectives?

Dr. Oratz: Oh, yes. Even without the pandemic, it can be hard to come in, initially, for breast cancer care after receiving a diagnosis. A lot of patients feel that coming in for treatment makes the experience real. But if you can conquer that fear and push forward, we’re here to help.

Dr. Shapiro: Also, every patient is in an entirely different situation. Even if your friend or coworker or family member went through breast cancer, their experience isn’t necessarily going to be your experience. Treatment is very often influenced by how old a woman is, her menopausal status, the size of her tumor, and the specific details of her individual case. It’s also important to remember that people who’ve had a bad experience or a difficult time with their breast cancer care are more likely to talk about it than those who were treated, had a good or easy experience, and just want to get on with their lives. And as breast cancer is very common, there are probably many more of the latter than you’d think.

Richard Shapiro, MD provides advanced surgical care to patients with breast cancer and other forms of cancer.

So, once they’ve come through your door, how do you help patients get through that fear of the unknown?

Dr. Oratz: The main thing is to listen to our patient and try to understand her issues around the treatment, to identify what scares her most. If it’s chemo, is it losing her hair? Is it a fear of nausea? Is it that she fears she may not be able to work full time and care for her kids? In that case, we can come up with a treatment plan that’s flexible and will allow her to continue working.

Dr. Shapiro: Yes, breast cancer is a disease of healthy women, who feel well and have energy. Depending on their diagnosis and treatment plan, they may find treatment doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day life as much as they’d fear.

Dr. Oratz: Exactly. People have all kinds of fears about treatment, but if I understand their concerns, I can address them. The second issue is that it’s important to be honest with people. If I feel a certain type of treatment must absolutely be done, or otherwise the patient will be in big trouble, I tell them. We practice evidence-based medicine, and we have the best pathology, genetics, genomics, and tumor sequencing around. Whatever we need to do to understand the best treatment for our patient’s form of cancer and give them options, we do it—and then we explain our rationale of why we’re making that recommendation.

What makes NYU Langone and the Perlmutter Cancer Center such a special place to help people face cancer?

Dr. Shapiro: Something unique about our Center is that we view patients as clients. We understand it’s a scary process for them to come here, and that it also can be very inconvenient. Breast cancer is a disease of women in the prime of their life. Most of our patients are working and have children and a lot of responsibilities. We make each patient’s workup and treatments as personalized as we can—not only with medicine and science, but with an understanding that all people are different.  And we’re very doctor-intensive: You’re going to see your doctor a lot.

Dr. Oratz: And in addition to that, we are one-stop shopping. Everything is under one roof, from breast imaging and radiology to blood work and biopsy, and with our multidisciplinary team present in that same space. We have the best nursing staff in the city. Dr. Shapiro and I are in the office on the same days, and if he calls me and says, “You need to see this patient,” I’m there. We have tight professional and personal relationships, and we can be really efficient. I think that’s really important, especially now with COVID, when people are concerned about venturing into public. We are glad that patients can get their imaging and blood work done and see me all in one day in the same building. Our philosophy here dates back decades: We are truly patient-centered.

To schedule your cancer screenings, begin treatment, or resume treatment, please contact us at 212-731-6000 or visit Perlmutter Cancer Center online.

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