GREAT FALLS — COVID-19 shutdowns and precautions delayed medical appointments and procedures for many people, including regular preventative screenings according to the American Cancer Society.
“COVID affected that a year ago, but that’s not your excuse anymore. You should be getting screen annually,” explained Cancer Control Program Health Education Specialist Lacey Gallagher.
In Great Falls, Gallagher said the pandemic canceled or delayed annual screenings for some patients, but now appointments are available and shouldn’t be put off.
Gallagher stressed the importance of screening for early diagnosis and intervention:
“In men they’re checking your PSA if you’re older, if you’re younger they may be looking for testicular cancer. That happens in men usually under the age of 30. With women we’re doing an annual exam to make sure we’re not getting cervical cancer, breast cancer. And then of course the gold standard of a colonoscopy. They just recently lowered the age to 45.”
Dental offices also felt the effects of COVID shutdowns. In Great Falls, Westside Family Dental was closed for around 2 months, except for emergency visits. The closure backed up regular cleanings and checkups, which are recommended every six months.
“Now you’ve taken two months’ worth of hygiene. Six months from then is a nightmare and that’s what we saw. In October we had a really hard time getting patients in with our see our hygienists because we missed out on scheduling two months into that time,” explained dentist Dr. Kevin Fairhurst.
Fairhurst said Westside Family Dental is close to operating in a normal capacity, as they did pre-pandemic. A few patients are still hesitant, but overall they’ve gotten caught up on delayed appointments.
For Great Falls resident Renee Melnik, the pandemic was marked by a different kind of health scare: “You’re angry, you’re depressed, you’re in denial, anxiety, frustration was a big one. You just want it to go away.”
Those are all words many people used to describe 2020 and the pandemic.
For Melnik, the mix of emotions and uncertainty came from not only what was happening in the world around her, but not knowing what was going on inside of her. “You sit there and you wait for it to turn into the thing that they’re telling you in could turn into,” Melnik said.
Just weeks before COVID prompted shutdowns in 2020, Melnik was diagnosed with high grade stage three lesions on her cervix.
At the time, Melnik said that was ok with her because she didn't want to risk getting COVID with underlying health conditions. However, she had to sit with the knowledge of what was happening in her body. Denial often got her through each day. “I’m living with this and knowing the whole time that cancer was right around the corner for me,” Melnik explained.
When she did get a call again months later to come back into the doctor's office, it came with a mix of emotions. "For me there was a little bit of anger there as well, because ok well you weren't worried about me six months ago, why now? Why is it such an emergency for you now? In my mind I had totally had to refocus everything. It became not an emergency for me then at that point,” Melnik explained.
Although she had to work through her frustration, Melnik said she did understand why the delay happened. She was afraid though, that her condition had gotten worse.
“When I finally developed the courage to go back, it had progressed, and things were a little bit worse and they ended up finding a mass on my uterus as well,” said Melnik.
The mass was removed and thankfully was not cancerous. "You become a survivor then, and that’s where I am,” Melnik said.
Melnik credits Gallagher for helping her get connected with the Montana Breast and Cervical Program. The program provides free cancer screening services and additional financial assistance for those who qualify.
Gallagher said the program is particularly helpful for those who may need additional ultrasounds or a biopsy. She said it’s beneficial for people with insurance. Those with insurance and a co-pay/deductible with a $250 out-of-pocket could be eligible.
More information about cancer screening services can be found here.