By Heather Mullinix
Mammograms are one of the most effective weapons in the fight against cancer. They can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease, helping to detect cancer before it advances and giving patients a greater chance of survival.
Unfortunately, many women find they are unable to have regular mammograms because they lack insurance or ability to pay for the exam. Cumberland Medical Center is helping to remove those barriers to care through its free mammogram days.
"It saved my life," Wetzlich said. "I'm grateful for this program, but so are my three daughters and my husband."
Wetzlich was nearing her 40th birthday in February 2011 and knew she needed to schedule a mammogram. However, she didn't have insurance for the important diagnostic screening, and she was scared of what might be found.
"I never had one done because I was afraid, but my mom told me to stop being a chicken," Wetzlich said.
When she saw an advertisement for the free mammogram days at Cumberland Medical Center, she decided to heed her mother's advice and have one done.
"It's a big relief for those who don't have insurance," she said. "Without this program, I wouldn't have had my mammogram and I wouldn't have known I had cancer."
She's one of the more than 240 women who have benefitted from a free screening mammogram through a grant from Komen Upper Cumberland, the local affiliate for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Since 2010, the grant has provided access to mammograms for medically under-served and uninsured women in Cumberland and surrounding counties.
Ann Lewis, RT(R)(M), said there was a growing need in the area for the service. As many as 26 women can be seen during a free screening day at the CMC Regional Breast Center. The Regional Breast Center uses state-of-the-art digital mammography and a variety of diagnostic procedures can be performed right there in one convenient location, Lewis noted.
"It's a lot easier for the patient," she said.
Wetzlich added, "It's much more private and personal."
The Regional Breast Center offers breast ultrasound, DexaScan and wire localization biopsy. The center is staffed with five radiologic technologists and four board-certified radiologists.
"It's a good group," Lewis said. "Everyone is encouraging and they care about the patients."
In addition to providing access to mammograms, CMC also works to educate women on the importance of monthly breast self exams which can also lead to earlier detection of cancer.
Unfortunately, Wetzlich's mammogram showed a lump. That's when Trish Vaughn, RN, nurse navigator, stepped in to help coordinate follow-up care and refer Wetzlich to physicians that could quickly diagnose and provide treatment.
"It was frightening," Wetzlich said. "Trish helped tremendously. She was there 24-7. She helped find the right physician and follow-up care, she put me in touch with volunteers that could talk with me and answer my questions.
"Instead of it being a terrifying, awful experience, I made wonderful friends and they helped me to stay positive," Wetzlich said.
Vaughn explained that she steps in when a screening mammogram shows an abnormality, coordinating follow-up care. That can include following women who need to be re-screened in a few months to helping connect women to primary care physicians and surgeons for treatment. In the case of women without insurance, Vaughn refers them to the Cumberland County Health Department to get enrolled in the Tennessee Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Program for treatment.
Wetzlich said her lump was caught just in time and she was successfully treated. She's cancer free today, but wants everyone to know how important regular mammograms are.
"The biggest thing is not to be afraid," Wetzlich said.
Her experience as a patient has changed her life, she said. She now volunteers with the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program for breast cancer patients and she has seen how cancer touches the lives of every member of a family. She encourages every woman to have regular mammograms.
"Do it for yourself and for everyone that loves and counts on you," Wetzlich said.
The National Cancer Institute recommends women 40 years of age and older have a mammogram every one to two years. Women who have had breast cancer or other breast problems or who have a family history of breast cancer might need to begin mammograms before age 40, or they may need them more often. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin mammograms and how often you need them based on your medical history.
The first free mammogram day for this grant was held Tuesday. Additional days are scheduled for Sept. 15, Dec. 11, Feb. 12, April 9 and April 23. To qualify for the free mammograms, patients must be 40 years of age or older and not have had a mammogram within two years. They cannot have a previous diagnosis of breast cancer, lumps, breast pain or any other type of breast problem and they cannot have insurance.
To schedule an appointment, call 459-7040.
The program is funded through Komen Upper Cumberland. One of the programs used to help fund this and similar grants throughout the Upper Cumberland Region is the Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure 5K run/walk, one mile family walk and Kids for the Cure activities, set for Sept. 23 at Hooper Eblen Center on the TTU Campus in Cookeville.
"Without Susan G. Komen, we couldn't offer this service," Lewis said.
Seventy-five percent of funds raised stay in the region to support breast cancer health education, screening and treatment programs like the CMC program. The remaining funds go to the national affiliate to support ground-breaking breast cancer research. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is now the world's largest breast cancer organization and the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer, with nearly $1.6 billion invested to date.
For more information about the Susan G. Komen Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure, visit www.komenuppercumberland.org.