Julie Sneider
View from the Waiting Room

Women can’t afford to put off cancer screenings

By - May 17th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photo courtesy cpurl and Flickr.

A recent survey by the Avon Foundation for Women found that some states’ budget cuts, combined with uncertainty over national guidelines on mammograms, may be keeping some women from getting screened for breast cancer.

The online survey of more than 150 breast cancer health educators and providers from across the United States examined what, if any, impact the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines may be having on women under age 50.

The task force caused an uproar last November when it recommended that women with an average risk of getting breast cancer should start having regular mammograms at age 50, and then only every other year.

Previously, the task force recommended such screenings be done every year starting at age 40.

photo by Kristie Wells, from flickr.com (CC)

The age at which women should start getting regular mammograms has been debated for years; nonetheless, the task force’s revised guidelines sparked more controversy, confusion and worry.

So the Avon Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropic groups focused on women’s issues, did the survey and found that in 25 percent of 48 states contacted, women under 50 did indeed have less access to mammograms than before the guidelines were revised. The foundation concluded its finding was the result of some states cutting early cancer screening programs, as well as women being uncertain over when, where and how to get screened.

Wisconsin was not cited as one of the states where budget cuts negatively affected breast cancer screening programs. Still, executive director Sally Shepherdson and other staff at the Southeast Wisconsin Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure are worried that a growing number of women are putting off preventive breast cancer screenings because of economic hardship.

They base those concerns partly on phone calls they often get from local women who say they can’t afford a $300 mammogram. In some cases, callers have found a lump in their breast and don’t know what to do about it because they don’t have adequate health insurance and can’t afford out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Photo courtesy Jason Pier in DC and Flickr

That’s where Susan G. Komen for the Cure in Southeast Wisconsin comes in to help. (Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, we feel it important to note that the author volunteers for the affiliate’s communications committee, which helps spread the word on breast health resources for women. The Southeast Wisconsin Affiliate is part of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a worldwide, nonprofit grassroots organization committed to finding a cure for breast cancer.)

Over the past 11 years, the local Komen group has raised nearly $5 million for national research and local breast cancer education, screening and treatment for underserved women. Earlier this month, the Southeast Wisconsin Affiliate announced it awarded $649,000 in community health grants to programs that provide mammography services and breast cancer outreach to women living in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Kenosha, Ozaukee, Washington, Jefferson and Walworth counties.

In announcing the grants, Shepherdson noted the importance of early detection in saving women’s lives, and why Komen wants to make sure that “age-appropriate, uninsured and under-insured women in southeast Wisconsin have full access to routine breast health services.”

“This is especially critical for individuals with a family history that calls for earlier screenings,” she added.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is sticking with the recommendation that women of average risk for breast cancer start getting regular mammograms at age 40. Women who can’t afford the cost can contact the Southeast Wisconsin Affiliate at 414-805-2900 or the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (www.wwhf.org) for information on how to access screening, diagnosis and treatment. Komen also offers a national helpline for people with questions about breast health and cancer at 877-465-6636.

Doctors and scientists may disagree over what age and how often women should get mammograms. But everyone agrees early detection of breast cancer saves lives.

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