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Making cancer survivors of the uninsured

This story first appeared in the summer/fall 2009 issue of Ohio University Medicine. It was updated and edited by Charlie Martinez to be published during October 2011’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

By Colleen Kiphart

Illustration by Danette Pratt

Oct. 17, 2011

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 was diabetic, and 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 Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM)'s Community Health Programs (CHP) and a friend of Anne’s. “She died two days before her 65th birthday.”

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

Anne worked every day until the pain prevented her from being mobile. A few weeks before she 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 says, “it doesn’t have to be.”

Trace and her colleagues at OU-HCOM offer free and reduced-cost mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies and other diagnostic tests for both breast and cervical cancer to uninsured and underinsured women at high risk, including women over the age of 50 and those with previous breast abnormalities and/or a family history of cancer.

The breast and cervical cancer screenings are provided through CHP’s Healthy Adult Program and funded by the Columbus affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Ohio Breast and Cervical Cancer Project (BCCP), and the Ohio Association of Free Clinics. Komen, one of the program’s greatest supporters, awarded the Healthy Adult Project Breast Screening Program $65,715 in 2011, for a total of $672,244 since 2001.

“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.”

Since 1994, the OHIO program has screened more than 50,000 women for breast and cervical cancer, including 487 screened in 2010 at over 65 different clinics. CHP’s Healthy Adult Project Breast Screening Program covers a 15-county area through its mobile health units and its Heritage Community Clinic, which is located in Grosvenor Hall.

Despite these promising figures, stories like Anne’s persist, underscoring the need to increase awareness of CHP and other services.

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

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

Before she died, Anne expressed her desire to spread the word to uninsured community members about the importance of early detection―and about OU-HCOM’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.”

The two biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer―growing older and being a woman―are unavoidable, Trace says. 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.

Programs like the Healthy Adult Project Breast Screening Program can help with early detection. In 2010 alone, the program assisted to diagnose three cases of breast cancer that would have gone undetected. Carrie Johnson, R.N., the nurse coordinator for the program, regularly follows up with diagnosed patients during and after treatment.

“Our hope is that women age 40 and older will continue to take advantage of early detection methods―mammography plus clinical breast exam.” Johnson said. “The key to mammography screening is that it be done routinely―once is not enough.”

This month screenings will be held:

• Oct. 18 – United Methodist Church, Tuppers Plains

• Oct. 19 – Woodsfield Church of Christ, Woodsfield

• Oct. 25 – Hocking Valley Community Hospital, Logan

• Oct. 26 – Perry County Senior Center, New Lexington

To schedule a breast exam through the Healthy Adult Breast Screening Program, call 1.800.844.2654.

*Names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016