At Aiken Regional Medical Centers, the lobby of the Women's Breast Health and Imaging Center looks more like a boutique or a salon compared to a traditional waiting room.
Dr. Jill Enter, of the Aiken Physicians Alliance, sees breast cancer patients at the center. The center has a particular look for a reason, she said.
The patterned, gauzy curtains and crystals dripping from overhead lights and the plush pillows and elegant feminine decor are all chosen with the patients in mind.
"We want our ladies to feel at ease when they come in," said Enter. "We want it to seem more like a spa treatment, a trip to the salon, or another calming environment. It can be very anxiety-provoking to come in and get a mammogram. For some women, it's the most anxious they've ever been. We want to try and make the experience as peaceful and as calming as possible."
The Women's Breast Health and Imaging Center sees patients from all over Aiken County. The center's medical technology provides mammographies, bone densitometry, routine X-rays and stereotactic breast biopsies, among other services.
According to Enter, that advanced technology may be the reason breast cancer is being diagnosed in younger women, which can be something of a mixed blessing.
"I do know that, in my practice, I have had a preponderance of younger women being diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer," Enter said. "… We certainly are detecting cancer earlier because our screening abilities are increasing."
Early detection, Enter said, is key to improving the survival rate of her patients. It's why she strongly encourages regular self-exams.
Some of that early detection also hinges on a very specific type of mammogram technology offered at the imaging center: 3D mammograms.
Three-dimensional mammograms use multiple X-rays to create a 3D image of the breast. Enter said this enables doctors to "roll back" layers of dense tissue and detect abnormalities – such as cancer – that can be missed on certain patients by regular 2D mammograms.
"The regular mammogram is appropriate for patients who have a breast that is fatty-replaced and not dense," Enter said. "It will show you everything you need to see. Three-dimensional mammograms can move dense breast tissue around, which is especially good for younger women. That’s where it really shines, when you have a patient with really dense breast tissue that can’t be seen through normal mammograms."
A 2019 study found 3D mammograms may also reduce the number of breast cancer false positives in patients 65 and older. Because it is still considered newer technology, 3D mammography is not available everywhere.
Enter said the center is usually "super busy" in October due to the increased awareness from Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But this year has been anything but normal due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I have definitely seen a decrease in the screening appointments," Enter said. "Patients tend to want to postpone it until it seems safe to go to the physician. Originally, in March, everything seemed to be getting postponed."
Enter said whether a patient chooses to postpone a medical exam or procedure comes down to their diagnosis. Some people who are at elevated risk for the virus may feel safer postponing a mammogram until local COVID-19 infection rates decrease.
"We are sterilizing as much as possible; we are cleaning the rooms between every single patient," Enter said. "We’re socially distancing the waiting rooms to try to provide an environment that is safe for patients to be evaluated in."
Enter said doctors at the imaging center also can provide appointments via Zoom or other video calls. She said medical professionals also have concerns that some women may delay seeking help due to the economic fallout from COVID-19.
"... I still have ladies who present here who haven't been doing self exams, or who put off getting medical treatment early because they didn't have insurance and couldn't afford it," Enter said. "If you have this (cancer), please come. We will see you. We will work out a payment plan."