FRISCO, Texas — Since reaching her 40s, Karla Nivens said she hasn’t skipped a single annual mammogram. She has always made it a priority to prevent any potential problems, and in 2020, she and her family saw why that’s so important.

“My aunt,” said Nivens with a sigh. “During this [2020] screening, they did find a lump in her breast and it did come back that it was cancerous.”

Nivens said the news shook her. She’d never really had a close call for breast cancer in her family, but she said all of the women in her family had always taken testing seriously just in case.

However, that seriousness was validated and she watched her aunt undergo treatments for the disease they’d always feared. However, Nivens said her aunt quickly fought the cancer back and returned to a clean bill of health because she’d been so persistent in getting that yearly test, even in the less than ideal year of 2020.

Karla Nivens discusses her aunt's breast cancer scare and quick recovery thanks to early detection. (Spectrum News 1/Brian Scott)
Karla Nivens discusses her aunt's breast cancer scare and quick recovery thanks to early detection. (Spectrum News 1/Brian Scott)

“They caught it early,” said Nivens. “We don’t know what would have happened if she had allowed COVID to deter her from keeping up with her screenings.”

Nivens’s aunt, though, may have been in the minority on that prevention front last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this year that breast cancer screening rates declined 87% during April of 2020. The organization notes that cervical cancer screenings also fell about 84% from their five-year average during that time.

“We were in our homes, we didn’t know anything about COVID. Everybody was afraid and the hospitals closed their doors to people getting their routine mammograms,” said Janelle Hail, founder of the Frisco-based National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Hail fears that despite medical facilities reopening to elective procedures and preventative screenings, many women remain behind on their annual mammograms. Experts have even reported some back-ups to get the screenings as doctors work through backlogs of patients in need and continue to deal with the pandemic.

Hail, a 40-year breast cancer survivor herself, said that’s a serious concern when early detection is - such in the case of Nivens’s aunt - a lifesaver when it comes to breast and other forms of cancer.

“Still, the screenings have not reached that level of pre-pandemic,” said Hail.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Hail and the NBCF announced their new RISE (Rally in Screening Everyone) campaign to encourage more patients to get back onto their annual screening schedule and encourage others who haven’t been to start making mammograms a yearly priority. The organization is also pushing out more educational materials and support for people to learn about breast cancer and the importance of early detection.

Nivens, who recently moved to Houston, even returned to Frisco to help the organization’s mission last week, and helped potential patients work through any fears they may have about getting that annual screening and getting one during these uncertain times. She said she even made her annual checkup a priority before making the move to her new home, and despite reports of backups at some facilities, she said she had no problem getting to the front of a line.

“I just called and I said, ‘I’m about to move, I don’t have an appointment,’ and they said, ‘OK, give us an hour and walk on in,’” said Nivens.