Assemblymember Pedro Nava (D-Ventura) along with a number of state and locally elected officials, health organizations, breast cancer survivors and advocates, and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation held a press conference on Tuesday morning, urging the State to spare breast cancer screening access for more than 1 million of California’s neediest women.
This comes on the heels of the California Department of Public Health’s recent decision to shut down the Every Woman Counts program for the first six months of 2010, then to reopen and provide new patient mammograms only for women aged 50 and older, due to funding issues. This decision is even more harmful to the health of women in our state than meets the eye, as the services provided by the Every Woman Counts program was geared toward the 1.2 million women in California who are low-income and uninsured — many of them women of color who are statistically diagnosed with cancer younger than their white counterparts.
The department’s directive also happens to coincide with the United States Preventive Task Force recommendation last month that women younger than 50 shouldn’t receive mammograms, and then, after age 50, should only be screened every other year. The reason for this: to cut down on anxiety. (The American Cancer Society recommends that women should start getting mammograms annually, beginning at age 40.)
The thought is that unnecessary mammograms are making women worry too much (and aren’t cost effective) when biopsy results are often benign, according to the USPTF. In addition, the number of lives saved through early detection is apparently too few to justify annual screenings. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 68 women will develop breast cancer by the time they are 40 and 1 in 37 women will do so by the time they are 50. The death rate is higher for younger woman with cancer as well because they tend to have more aggressive breast cancers. Those lives saved through early detection at a younger age versus treatment at later stages of cancer for women older than 50 weren’t enough to tip the scales for the task force.
The unintended consequences of the task force’s recommendation alongside the department’s decision are drastic, unnecessary and a downright shame.
Fiscally speaking, if a younger woman decides to believe that the lump in her breast is benign, based on the idea that only a few women are ever diagnosed with cancer at a young age, if she is wrong, the cost to treat cancer as it progresses increases exponentially. According to Dr. Constanze Rayhrer, a general surgeon in Ventura who specializes in breast cancer treatment (with many of her patients being younger than 50), a $90 mammogram could prevent tens of thousands of dollars worth of treatment for progressive stages of breast cancer. Also, by temporarily shutting down and changing the rules of the Every Woman Counts program, which is funded through Prop. 99, (i.e., cigarette taxes), the fiscal burden for mammograms will be placed on county health care agencies — funded by local taxpayers.
In regard to physical health, repeated mammograms and a biopsy or two will not burden a woman the way treatment will. Chemotherapy, radiation and downtime to heal may cost a woman her job and/or hurt her family’s functionality. A little time worrying cannot make up for months in treatment.
Not only do we believe the task force’s recommendation was wrong, but the public health department made a terrible error by cutting off so many women from preventive health care. We urge you to contact Pedro Nava to express your concerns regarding these issues: call his office at (916) 319-2035, or e-mail email@example.com. We are the only force that can undo these egregious wrongs.