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Free services offer hope for beating breast cancer

Programs through the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine provide free breast cancer screenings and early treatment for local uninsured and underinsured

By Colleen Kiphart

Oct. 6, 2008

When Anne found a lump in her breast, she thought little of it. She had found benign cysts in the past – and paid out of pocket to have them removed and examined. If this were a movie, a foreshadowing refrain may have swelled in the background as she did her self-examination, fading to a tenuous tune as she dismissed it. But there is no soundtrack to warn us of what is to come, no warning sign that says, “This time is different.”  

Anne, a local woman whose real name we're not using to protect her privacy, was a diabetic who had trouble staying insured. As she needed it more, health insurance became harder to afford and, ultimately, impossible to obtain.  

“She was waiting to get a mammogram until she turned 65, which is when Medicare would have kicked in,” said Kathy Trace, M.H.A., director of OU-COM's Community Health Programs and friend of Anne’s. “She died two days before her 65th birthday.” 

According to the American Medical Association, 46 million Americans are currently uninsured, which can lead to a cycle of self-diagnosis, self-neglect and self-denial that can be fatal.

A few weeks ago, before Anne succumbed to breast cancer, she implored Trace to tell her story. According to Trace, Anne’s tragedy is a common one – but in Southeastern Ohio at least, she said, “it doesn’t have to be.”

Trace, a registered nurse, and her colleagues at CHP, offer free and reduced-cost mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies and other diagnostic tests for uninsured and underinsured women who are at high risk for developing cancer.

The services are provided through CHP's Healthy Adult Breast Screening Program and funded by both the Columbus affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Ohio Breast and Cervical Cancer Project (BCCP).

Trace explained that all women over the age of 50 qualify for being “high risk,” as do women with previous breast abnormalities and/or a family history of breast cancer.

“When an uninsured patient is diagnosed with cancer, the BCCP refers them to a primary care physician in the state,” Trace said. “And if the women are members of the BCCP before they are diagnosed, (the BCCP) also covers the full cost of treatment.”

Between March 1994 and March 2006, the program screened 49,558 women for breast cancer.

“Many of these women return each year, using the mobile unit as their primary ob/gyn,” said Cindy Greenlee, M.S.N., a nurse practitioner with Student Health Services and CHP, who works with the mobile screening unit. 

But, as Anne’s story attests, more needs done to raise awareness of this program.

Trace, who had known Anne for years, met with her when Anne complained of back and bone pain. Unaware of Anne’s breast lump, Trace referred her to a local physician. Unfortunately, the physician who ultimately noticed and diagnosed her cancer was not affiliated with the BCCP. With the diagnosis of advanced breast cancer from an outside physician, it was too late to join the BCCP and qualify for free treatment. 

“She would have been a perfect candidate for this service, had we known earlier,” Trace said.

Before she died, Anne expressed her desire to spread the word to uninsured community members about the importance of early detection – and about OU-COM’s free services.

Trace described Anne as an open and generous person, fondly remembered and sorely missed by her family and wide circle of friends. “She was always one to help others. This is one way for that to continue – her way of being a friend to those she never met.”

OU-COM’s Community Health Programs cover a 15-county area through both its mobile health van and its permanent Free Clinic on the second floor of Parks Hall in Athens.

When Trace arrived in 2000, OU-COM staff nurses told her that they considered the Healthy Adult Breast Screening Program to be among the most critical in terms of community impact, but the program had seen many stops and starts over the years, due to inconsistent funding.

Trace aggressively sought grants to revive the program. In recent years, Komen has been one of the program’s greatest supporters, helping to fund services, education and more. OU-COM breast cancer screenings also are among programs affiliated with the Appalachian Health Care Access Project, which received a substantial one-time grant from the Ohio Department of Health and Human Services this year. 

The two biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer – growing older and being a woman – are unavoidable, Trace said. But regular self-examinations, discussions with your doctor, and yearly mammograms – all in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle – can reduce your risk and give you the greatest advantage in the fight against cancer: finding it early.

Early detection has meant everything to Florence, a local woman currently undergoing chemotherapy. When Florence found a breast lump earlier this year, she went to a local doctor who referred her to CHP for screening. She joined the BCCP and was promptly diagnosed. She qualified for free treatment. 

Janice Smith, nurse coordinator for CHP – and herself a breast cancer survivor – regularly follows up on her progress. She’s feeling weak, but as Janice assured her over the phone, “This is the worst part of it.”

According to Greenlee, fear deters some women from investigating breast lumps. But she believes that’s changing thanks to a national emphasis on early detection through organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the increased availability of resources, such as CHP screenings.

“Many women don’t even do breast exams because they’re afraid they’ll find a lump,” Greenlee said. “They think, ‘What will I do if you find a lump?’ We give them hope.”  

To schedule a breast exam through the Healthy Adult Breast Screening Program, call 1-800-844-2654.

 
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Last updated: 01/28/2016