Mammograms help detect breast cancer

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 10/27/99.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

According to the American Cancer Society, the number one risk factor for breast cancer is simply being female. While men are also at risk (1,400 U.S. men will be diagnosed this year), by far the majority of cases are found in women. The risk increases with age. About 80 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50.

Many people know somebody who has had cancer, but they may not know what cancer is. Every organ in the human body is made up of cells. Healthy cells divided and reproduced in an orderly fashion, producing more cells only when necessary. Sometimes this process is disrupted and the cells begin to grow out of control, producing extra tissue that can either be benign, meaning that it is noncancerous and will not spread, or malignant, which means that it is cancerous and can invade and damage nearby healthy tissues and organs.

Among the risk factors are: a personal or family history of breast cancer, an early first menstrual period (before age 12) late menopause (after 55), and a delay of pregnancy (after age 30). Women who have never given birth are also believed to be at greater risk, as are women who are obese or consume an excessive amount of alcohol.

According to the National Institute of Health, even among women with a strong family history of cancer, three-fourths will not develop breast cancer. They also report that the majority of breast cancer victims, 75 percent, do not have a family history and do not fall into any of the high risk categories.

There is still no known cure for advanced breast cancer and doctors cannot predict which women will have breast cancer. Therefore, early detection is the best chance for survival. In fact, when the disease is confined to the breast, the five-year survival rate is 97 percent.

The American Cancer Society, along with other health organizations, recommends that women follow a three-pronged approach to increase their chances of finding breast cancer early. The steps, based on a partnership between a woman and her physician, include breast self-examination, mammography, and clinical breast exam performed by a doctor or nurse.

To help women get in for the clinical breast exam and the mammogram, Meeker County has free and low-cost mammography services available. Low-cost mammograms are part of the Breast Cancer Detection Awareness Project and can be scheduled at Meeker County Memorial Hospital by calling 320-693-3242 during the months of October, November, and December.

Free mammograms, clinical breast exams, and pap smears are available all year through the Minnesota Breast and Cervical Cancer Control program. The program is for women 40 and older, who are uninsured or underinsured (those who have insurance but it has a high deductible or doesn't cover screening services) and meet generous income guidelines.

Women who want to find out if they are eligible for a free mammogram, can call the Meeker County Public Health at 320-693-5370 or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345 for other sites around the state.

Mark Dingman, at the Paynesville Area Health Care System, said the hospital is offering reduced rates for mammograms the month of November.

"The American Cancer Society recommends women over the age of 50 have a mammogram every year," Dingman said. "Women seeking a mammogram need to have an appointment made through their family physician. Insurance policies usually cover the cost of a diagnostic exam."

Medicare benefits
The Health Care Financing Administration, the federal agency that administers the medicare program, is urging women to take advantage of the breast cancer screenings benefit available under Medicare.

The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 expanded Medicare coverage of screening mammograms. As of January 1998, Medicare began paying for an annual screening mammogram for all female beneficiaries age 40 and over.

This change made Medicare Part B coverage consistent with the frequency recommendations of most major breast cancer authorities. Also, the annual part B deductible, currently $100, no longer applies to this service. Some women needn't wait to take advantage of this benefit. Medicare still pays 80 percent of the approved amount and the patient must pay the 20 percent coinsurance for this service.

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