"Screening is so important," said Dr. Ritu Salani, an OB-GYN at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. "If we don't catch it now, it may present at more advanced stages when it's more challenging to treat, or more aggressive therapies might be needed, and with poorer outcomes."
And it's not just cervical cancer: Mammograms, fertility treatments and even pain prevention procedures have been waylaid by the pandemic, several women said. In April, the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services both published guidelines recommending the postponement of elective and non-urgent procedures, including "low-risk cancer" screenings, amid the first wave of the pandemic.
Heidi Putallaz, 38, of Santa Clarita said her doctor recommended a follow-up mammogram and ultrasound after discovering a spot of abnormal tissue last fall. She has been unable to find an opening until at least the end of March.
"I know it's probably nothing," Putallaz said, "but having lost many relatives, including my mom, to breast cancer, you do wonder if this turns out to be the worst-case scenario."
Like Pap smears and HPV tests, mammograms can be essential in reducing the number of cancer deaths. One 2020 study published in the journal Lancet Oncology projected that delays in diagnosis and treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic could result in as much as a 9.6% increase in breast cancer deaths in the U.K. over five years.
Yet even before the pandemic, women's wellness has often taken a back seat. Clinical trials have historically been conducted with men, and things such as seat belts, safety equipment and even office air conditioning are all designed with men's bodies in mind. Transgender women in particular have long battled barriers to care.
That women's procedures are regularly classified as "elective" can add to that burden, Salani said, noting that hospitals typically categorize admissions as "urgent, emergent or elective."
Women's wellness "is neither urgent nor emergent, but it truly isn't something that's optional, and that's what it makes it sound like," she said. "It's unfortunate terminology."
That lack of urgency has compounded many women's suffering during the pandemic. Inglewood resident Maria Vasilchikova, 27, said she tried to schedule a doctor's appointment last spring to help address issues related to polycystic ovary syndrome.
The pain she experiences is extreme, she said, requiring her to pull over if driving and sometimes causing her to vomit.