Cancer couldn't care less about COVID

Data from the Victorian Cancer Registry at Cancer Council Victoria shows an alarming reduction in breast cancer reporting since COVID-19 hit earlier this year. October is breast cancer awareness month and this year it’s more important than ever to spread awareness.

29 Oct 2020

“We are hearing of people with breast changes not seeking medical attention, declining or delaying initial appointments or follow-up investigations due to anxiety over COVID-19 infection, changes to accessing health care and possibly other competing factors during the COVID-19 pandemic,” highlighted Danielle Spence, Head of Strategy and Support at Cancer Council Victoria.

As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a timely message that St John of God Health Care wants everyone to hear loud and clear – Cancer doesn’t care about COVID.

“Your GPs are open. BreastScreen Victoria is available to conduct mammograms free of charge and strict infection control procedures aimed at keeping people safe have been implemented across all health and screening services,” said Elizabeth Douglass, McGrath Breast Care Nurse at St John of God Berwick Hospital.

“Most breast changes are not due to breast cancer and with all services still operating there is really no need to delay having your breasts checked, especially if you have discovered any changes.”

Early detection can have a positive impact on breast cancer outcomes. Delaying screening can lead to more complex and difficult treatment for people diagnosed with breast cancer, so it’s now more important than ever that people prioritise their health and understand that even with restrictions in place, essential medical care will always remain available.

It’s a message that is all too familiar to Maryanne Burr who is not only a Chemotherapy Clinical Educator and oncology nurse at St John of God Berwick Hospital, but also a former patient after discovering grade 3 triple negative breast cancer in October last year.

“I was completely blindsided by my diagnosis even after being a nurse for 45 years – 20 of those years spent in oncology,” she admitted. “I have educated so many patients about this type of treatment but it never truly prepares you for being a patient yourself.”

Despite the shock, Maryanne was aware of how important an early diagnosis would be.

“It was, funnily enough, Breast Cancer Awareness Month when I detected the lump,” said Maryanne, noting the added irony. “And I, like, every other cancer patient, entered a whirlwind of scans, diagnosis and treatment, well aware that if I had delayed going to my GP for a mammogram to begin with I would probably be facing a very different future right now.”

Fortunately for Maryanne her treatment has been successful and not only does she applaud the care she got from her caregivers and colleagues at St John of God Berwick Hospital’s oncology unit for her recovery, she credits their care and attention to her positive outcome.

“It was a blessing to be able to have my chemo in my ‘home’ unit,” said Maryanne – a unit she, herself, helped set up several years ago. “My gorgeous and incredible colleagues treated and cared for me and not only was I lucky enough to be cared for in a world class treatment centre, I was often sent home with a cooked dinner to boot. It was such a wonderful gift.”

It’s no secret that dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the midst of a pandemic can create challenges for patients and caregivers alike, but Maryanne insists that the care and attention you will receive will never be compromised.

“I feel for anyone who is recently diagnosed,” said Maryanne. “You will feel more vulnerable but you are not alone and it won’t change the excellent care you will receive. The amazing medical team is there to support us every step of the way.”

St John of God Health Care offers a range of services for people diagnosed with breast cancer from surgery, chemotherapy, pain and symptom management, to pastoral care, outpatient groups for physical and emotional wellbeingat both St John of God Berwick Hospital and St John of God Frankston Rehabilitation Hospital, and allied health support such as access to social workers, dietitians, case managers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and pharmacists.

It also prides itself on teaming up with the McGrath Foundation to provide free access to McGrath Breast Care Nurses who are specially trained to provide physical, emotional and psychosocial support to people with breast cancer and their families. They also play an important advocacy role to help people with breast cancer navigate through the complex and overwhelming journey that lies ahead of them. To access the service, simply visit the McGrath Foundation website to find a nurse nearest to your postcode. No referral from a doctor is needed.

Katie Cao, who works alongside Elizabeth Douglass, is the newest member of The McGrath Foundation to join the St John of God Health Care team.

“It’s so important to be aware of any changes in your breasts,” informs Katie. “We know that people are putting off seeing their GPs at the moment, but it is so important not to. Having said that, if you do find yourself on the other end of a cancer diagnosis, I will be there to provide support and care from the time of diagnosis, throughout treatment and beyond.”