Updated: May 13
Jan. 8, 2021 at 3:55 p.m. EST
A veteran Maryland lawmaker is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and says she wants to discuss her diagnosis as a way of reminding people to seek preventive care during the pandemic.
Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s), 70, who has served in the Maryland General Assembly for 30 years, said she was diagnosed in June. She credits early detection with preventing the spread of her cancer.
“I do want to encourage the public, especially women, not to delay getting their regular medical treatment,” Healey said. “Because if I had delayed it, my cancer might have grown to where they couldn’t do as much for it.”
Healey, who had a sister and a brother diagnosed with breast and colorectal cancer, respectively, in 2015, said she considered keeping her diagnosis private. But as she and her legislative colleagues prepare to return to Annapolis next week, she opted for a different path, hoping to persuade others not to put off doctor’s visits.
A recent study by the independent nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute found that fewer people are seeking routine and emergency medical treatment during the coronavirus pandemic, creating a “significant dampening effect” on certain health-care services.
Many are concerned about exposure to the virus if they venture into medical settings, even though doctors’ offices and hospitals are using extensive screening measures and protective equipment to limit spread of the virus and have used telehealth options whenever possible.
Experts say the risk of exposure to the virus is minimized in health-care facilities that adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which include limiting and monitoring points of entry, posting signs about mask-wearing and establishing a procedure for screening visitors for the virus.
“It’s really important for people to do everything they can to stay safe,” Healey said. “But at the same time, they shouldn’t let it paralyze them to the point where they’re not taking care of their health.”
Mammograms, which screen for breast cancer, and Pap smears, which screen for cervical cancer, were down nearly 80 percent in April compared with a year earlier, the Health Care Cost Institute found. Colonoscopies, which screen for colon cancer, dropped nearly 90 percent.
While the numbers have improved in recent months, the Health Care Cost Institute study still found that people are not yet getting preventive health-care services at pre-pandemic levels. In October, about 10 percent fewer people were getting those tests than a year earlier.
“It’s legitimately concerning for patients,” A. Patrice Burgess, a physician and member of the Council on Medical Service for the American Medical Association, said during a virtual discussion last year. “I think it takes a little while to build confidence that all of our safety precautions are in place, but we are really trying to make up for that backlog.”
Healey said she initially went in for a mammogram in May. At the time, her gynecologist was not taking appointments, but because of her family history the doctor gave her a referral to have the test taken. It came back normal.
Two months later, her doctor had started seeing patients again, and Healey had discovered a lump in her breast. The doctor ordered an ultrasound, then a biopsy.
Healey ultimately met with doctors at the University of Maryland Medical System, who recommended a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She said she has had surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy, which ended Dec. 9, and plans to start radiation treatment later this month, while the legislative session is underway.
She’s lost her hair and is wearing a wig. She also lost some weight but has largely regained it.
“It’s been scary, I have to admit that. But I’m back now and feeling stronger,” she said.
Healey serves as chairwoman of the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee and as a member of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. Even though her immune system is compromised, she said she never considered not returning to Annapolis for the session.
She noted that both Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) continued to work during their cancer treatments.
Instead of staying in a hotel during the 90-day session, she plans to rent a house in Annapolis, which will allow her to limit her contact with the public. Much of her committee work will be done virtually.
For in-person meetings, she said, staff members for House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) have taken extraordinary lengths to make the chamber and House annex secure for delegates.
“I’m trying to figure out ways to take the experience that I have just gone through and try to make things legislatively better, and to be able to speak with more authority about issues as they come up,” she said.