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September 23, 2014

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State program offers free mammograms

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death for Nevada women more than 40 years old, experts say, but most women in this high-risk age group do not take advantage of a state-financed program for free early screening, a procedure that could save their lives.

The Nevada State Health Division, using a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, 2 1/2 years ago began the Women's Health Connection, a program that offers uninsured and underinsured women 40 to 64 years old free breast and cervical cancer screenings.

Eligible women are sent a list of several providers who will perform an initial exam that is similar to an annual OB/GYN checkup. The women can then schedule their exams, and the doctor bills the program directly. In rural areas of the state, the program sends a trailer filled with medical equipment to conduct the exams.

A single woman can earn up to $20,125, an amount that rises when a woman has dependents.

Once a woman is enrolled in the program, she is eligible for life. Even if she takes a job where she is offered insurance or her income rises above the eligibility limits, the program is available to her immediately should she become eligible again, Hemmings said.

"We try to make it as easy as possible to be part of the program," she said.

Hemmings said the program is aimed at uninsured women 40 to 64, because that is the age when the occurrence of breast cancer begins to increase. If a woman does not discover breast cancer until she reaches 65 and is eligible for Medicare, the cancer is often already in the advanced stages, for which there is no known cure.

Program participants are allowed one exam per year, however if a lump is found, in between visits are allowed. Hemming said women often call after they find a lump in their breast and are in a panic. The program is usually able to get these women in to see a doctor within 48 hours.

Women 40 to 49 years old are not eligible to receive a mammogram unless something suspect shows up in the initial breast exam. Women 50 to 64 are given a free baseline mammogram even if there is no indication of a problem.

About 179,000 women in Nevada qualify for the Women's Health Connection services, Lyn Hemmings, program spokeswoman, estimates, but only 3,000 to 4,000 are signed up. The Women's Health Connection can handle at least four times that many.

"We pretty much have a carte blanche to screen as many women as we can," Hemmings said.

The program is still in the process of building up its rolls, a process that is hindered by a lack of funds for television and radio advertisements, Hemmings said. Referrals are made by Clark County Social Services, and the Women's Health Connection holds several special events each year during which initial exams are done in a mobile unit, Hemmings said.

Hemmings said the one thing that has impressed her the most during the 2 1/2-year life of the Women's Health Connection is how well educated women are about breast health. "I hardly ever meet anyone who says 'Why do I need this?' "

The Women's Health Connection, in addition to testing, is involved with educational pursuits, such as St. Rose Dominican Hospital's "Buddy Check" program, which encourages women to team up and remind each other to perform monthly self-exams. The program provides educational materials that are distributed to women who request information.

According to information compiled by the Women's Health Connection, when doctors detect breast cancer while it is confined to the breast, the woman's five-year survival rate is 93 percent. The key to getting those odds is early detection, the group said.

The breast cancer mortality rate would decrease by 30 percent if every woman over 50 followed screening guidelines, the group says.

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