Op-ed: The unforeseen consequence of COVID-19 for women of color

People line up to receive coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests at a testing center in Brooklyn, New York
People line up to receive COVID tests at a testing center in in Brooklyn.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Nearly three years into a global pandemic, and the data is clear: people of color (POC) are at least twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts. But sadly, the racial health disparities revealed by the pandemic extend far beyond the novel virus itself. As the public health crisis finally begins to wane the consequences resulting from delayed medical screenings and preventative care are becoming apparent.

Though we’ve rightly feared for our health and protecting ourselves from COVID-19, too many of us have put ourselves at greater risk of not detecting other life-threatening illnesses by putting off routine medical screenings. According to research from the American Cancer Society, over a third of U.S. adults failed to get routine cancer screenings due to fears related to the pandemic. And what’s more, about 30 percent of patients have chosen or considered delaying or changing their treatment plans due to concerns about contracting the virus.

As the Chief of Breast Surgery and the Director of the Maimonides Breast Center in Brooklyn, I can tell you that breast cancer has no boundaries – and what’s worse, it does discriminate. Despite having similar rates of breast cancer, mortality is approximately 40 percent higher among black women compared with white women. People of color face higher risk and rates of infection, hospitalization, and death from the virus, all while facing barriers in access to care.  Therefore, providers and women across the city need to recommit to prioritizing preventative care and screenings before it’s too late. In a diverse city like New York, we cannot afford to let the health of our women of color fall by the wayside.

While preventative care may seem of little importance amidst a global pandemic, the National Cancer Institute predicts that nearly 10,000 breast and colorectal cancer deaths will be due to pandemic-related delays in cancer screening and treatment. Given this reality, it is imperative that women – particularly women of color– prioritize preventive care and resume regular mammograms and ultrasounds.

As a cancer specialist, I have been privileged to help countless patients survive breast cancer because of early detection. What I can say with certainty is that routine screenings remain our strongest defense. The bottom line is this: the earlier you find malignant tumors, the better chance you’ll have at survival.

According to the American Cancer Society, when breast cancer is detected early in the localized stage, the five-year relative survival rate is 99 percent. This statistic gives us incredible hope but it also serves as a critical reminder that routine testing and early detection are fundamental first steps on the road to victory. And since the number of preventive cancer screening tests received by women through the Center for Disease Control’s National Breast and Cervical Early Detection program has declined considerably, doctors and medical centers across the country must begin to sound the alarm on the dangers of this trend.

As we work to get past this pandemic, we must not allow the potential consequences of undetected illness or else our progress will be set back. The systemic inequities in our nation’s healthcare system have always existed, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a new light on the issue. We can only hope that this reality has brought an urgency to the fight to reclaim our health and access equitable patient care.

Ten years ago, Maimonides Medical Center opened its Breast Cancer Center because no such institution existed in Brooklyn to help women get mammograms and dedicated cancer care. We have helped save the lives of thousands. For women, especially women of color, it’s time to take our health into our own hands. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

Dr. Donna-Marie Manasseh is chief, division of breast surgery and director of the breast cancer program at the Maimonides Breast Cancer Center in Brooklyn.