After waiting three months for an appointment, her doctor had to cancel so she could attend to COVID-19 patients at the hospital. Vasilchikova understood the reason for the cancellation — her mother is an intensive care unit nurse — but she was dismayed.
"They set back my progress by a great deal," she said, noting that no replacement appointment was offered in its stead. "My ovary pain symptoms worsened, and there is no safe way of investigating without going into a doctor's office."
Other women reported similar struggles. Jewelia, 44, who asked that her last name not be used, said fibroid removal surgery scheduled at Kaiser was canceled twice because of the pandemic. While waiting for a new appointment, she was laid off from her job and lost her health insurance. She can't afford the procedure without it.
"Here I am to this day without surgery and just living with pain," she said.
Miller, of the CDC, said that when the first stay-at-home orders in Southern California were lifted in June, some cervical cancer screenings did resume, but at a rate about 25% below normal.
Notably, the study Miller worked on with Chao was based on data collected through September 2020 — before the crippling surge of COVID-19 that arrived around the holidays. It is likely that the next year's data, which will include the region's most recent stay-at-home order, will see screening numbers fall again.
"When we see the next wave of data come through, I don't think it will drop as low as it did before, but I anticipate that it will drop," said Lisa Richardson, director of the CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. With only a handful of studies on the subject so far, she added, "it's just really hard to know."
The next barrier is for people to overcome their anxiety about seeking healthcare when they need it: Recent primary care physician data suggest that the split between patients canceling on doctors and doctors canceling on patients is about 50-50, Richardson said.
"The message is, know your own history and speak with your provider about what your needs are," she said. "If you are higher risk for getting cancer, you should not put it off…. This [pandemic] will end, and you still want to be healthy when this is over."
Still, many women said they have been afraid to seek care during the pandemic, especially for things that don't feel like emergencies.