LIVE OAK — A breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has been largely a solo journey for Santa Cruz County resident Jennifer Matlock.
This week, however, Matlock’s loved ones could wait no longer to show her how they felt. Her roommate, a co-conspirator with friends, drove a surprised Matlock on several laps up and down Chanticleer Avenue before parking outside a Sutter surgery center Monday morning. Awaiting Matlock’s arrival, ahead of her double mastectomy surgery later that morning, were more than a dozen friends and family members standing — with several feet between them — loudly cheering and waving hand-made signs of encouragement. From a safe distance, Matlock blew kisses and thanked her well-wishers before heading inside.
“It was so incredibly touching,” Matlock said by phone Wednesday in her hospital room while recovering from a four-hour surgery. “When I saw those familiar masked faces, it was just like, ‘Yeah, I got this. Here are my people, here is my support. I’m going to get this done, I’m going to get through it.’ Everybody wants to care and help during this weird time, and they really can’t. So, that was a beautiful way to show me their support and that they’re there.”
Brother Jeff Matlock, who had biked to Chanticleer Ave. that morning to take part in the cheering, remained outside as his sister departed Monday.
“You can see what it does to one’s spirits, going through something like this,” Jeff Matlock said as he lingered outside.
In Jennifer Matlock’s case, the 49-year-old has been highly diligent about mammograms and cancer screenings after having struggled through an initial bout of cancer in her 20s. Just as many preventative-care procedures were beginning to slow down across the medical community, Matlock went in for one of her regular screenings, allowing her doctor to make an early breast cancer diagnosis, she said. Matlock then underwent chemotherapy treatment for several months, but ultimately decided to take an aggressive surgical route to ensure cancer did not return for the third time, she said.
COVID-19 impacted treatment
Not all women over age 40, however, have been as diligent about their breast health as Matlock during the coronavirus outbreak, said Sutter Health spokeswoman Emma Dugas. She estimated that throughout the Sutter Northern California system, some 4,000 to 5,000 mammograms were postponed during COVID-19, a number that statistically could mean that some 20 to 25 cases of breast cancer may have gone undiagnosed, Dugas said. For many, those delayed check-ups were due to apprehension about coming in or in order to stay sheltered and will mean their doctors must respond to later stages of the disease, she said.
Jennifer Matlock, however, sought to offer reassurance about her treatment experience. She acknowledged that she “definitely” had concerns about receiving treatment during the pandemic, but found Sutter to be on top of the necessary screenings.
“They’ve been really really tight about it, which is nice. Which I think could encourage people to go in,” Jennifer Matlock said, recounting pre-screenings, screenings and parking-lot conferrals with doctors as needed. “I don’t think people need to worry about, Sutter’s being really good about it, so I would encourage people to go and not be afraid that they’re going to catch something.”
In Santa Cruz County, Sutter Health radiologist Dr. Scott Somers said he believed that there are some women in the community right now who have breast cancer and do not know it. He offered reassurances that significant steps have been taken to ensure patient safety, and that those seeking mammogram appointments, in particular, should not have to wait to get checked out.
“Santa Cruz as a whole did a really good job during the whole lockdown that happened a few months ago in March-April,” said Somers. “But a side-effect of that lockdown has been that a lot of people unable to get medical exams for things like breast cancer screenings, colon cancer screenings and we know what an impact that’ll have on the community. We know cancer is easier to treat when it’s caught early.”
“In terms of mammograms, there should not be any backlog at all. We can schedule patients within a day or two, probably, because we’ve done things like add-on extra hours after work, between like 5 and 7 or 8 p.m. We also do mammograms on the weekend, now,” Somers said of local Sutter Health and Palo Alto Medical Foundation options.
Jeff Matlock, whose mother died of ovarian cancer in her 40s and also struggled with breast cancer, said his sister is lucky, in a way. Though “this is a gene that is rampaging through my family,” it is also what has kept his sister as prepared as possible, he said. Jeff Matlock said it has been difficult to support his sister as much as he would like during the pandemic, however.
“Obviously, I wanted to walk her in myself and stay with her until they took her to the waiting room,” Jeff Matlock said. “It was really really hard. Your instinct is, you just rush in there and be there when she wakes up. But none of that’s possible.”
Mammogram appointments for Sutter or Palo Alto Medical on the first floor of 2025 Soquel Ave. can be made by calling 831-458-5521. Elsewhere, Dignity Health Dominican Hospital patients are able to make an appointment or ask questions by calling 831-476-7711, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., or visit rmgscc.com. Medical services are provided by Radiology Medical Group of Santa Cruz County, Inc. The Dominican Breast Center is located at 1661 Soquel Drive, Building G.
The Santa Cruz Health Center at 1080 Emeline Ave. and Watsonville Health Center at 1430 Freedom Blvd., Suite D, also offer clinical breast examination and referral for mammograms for women 40 years of age and older, with free service for income-eligible clients. Call 831-454-4100 for Santa Cruz or 831-763-8400 for Watsonville.