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A monthly breast exam is a necessity for older women, because early detection may make all the difference in surviving breast cancer.

And any woman who doesn't listen to that advice from her doctor may listen more readily when the message comes from another woman her age.

The Breast Health Initiative of the Health Association of Niagara County is a new program designed to promote breast health, especially for older women. The program uses peers, women aged 55 and older, to teach the importance of monthly breast self-exams and annual clinical exams and mammograms.

The initiative, part of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, will train interested women about breast health and then send them back into the community to share their knowledge with others.

"This type of program is also designed to help older women, especially those in their 70s, 80s and 90s, for whom touching their bodies is a foreign concept. We need to break through this," said Anne Binga, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

Mrs. Binga, a certified social worker, said the Breast Health Initiative is just beginning and soon will start training volunteers.

"New volunteers will be certified and receive training from the American Cancer Society. They will do public speaking for local senior citizens' groups, as well as other women's groups, about the importance of mammograms, as well as how to do breast exams, using breast models. There will also be charts and handouts," said Mrs. Binga.

She said the program is designed to remind older women that seniors are at higher risk for breast cancer, especially after menopause. Since there is no way to prevent breast cancer, or predict who will develop it, finding cancer in the early stages is the best way to increase the potential for long-term survival.

P.J. Brewster, 70, is a former registered nurse who went through the American Cancer Society training and became a volunteer.

"I'll admit I was negligent in the past. I did not do my routine exam," she said.

"For a lot of women my age, it is not high on our list of priorities. But it must become a routine or a habit like the day of each month when you change the furnace filter -- you give yourself a breast exam. I also tell women who won't go back because a mammogram hurts that it's supposed to hurt. That's how you know it's working," said Mrs. Brewster.

She noted that she liked being a volunteer because she is able to meet wonderful and vivacious people who want new information. "It's a good feeling to see the light shine in their eyes, knowing that you taught them something new."

Another woman involved in the Breast Health Initiative is Valerie Lotimer. She laughs a lot, saying she really doesn't worry about small problems any more -- she is a breast cancer survivor.

Mrs. Lotimer now wants to get the message out to other women. "We need to be familiar with our bodies. Early detection is the best hope for a positive outcome," she said.

Mrs. Lotimer had a lump show up on her mammogram at age 48 and said after she was told she had cancer, she became an expert on the subject.

"I told the doctor that if I had to choose a disease, this is what I'd pick. You have choices about treatments. Also, the earlier it is detected, the better the outcome," said Mrs. Lotimer.

Any woman age 55 or older can be a volunteer. Women can go out and speak to groups in pairs or just help with clerical work or coordinating volunteers. "Any help is appreciated and we will match them to what they can do," said Mrs. Binga.

The Breast Health Initiative works closely with the Breast Health Partnership of New York. Locally, women who are eligible according to their income may schedule free mammograms through this service, which is coordinated by Rosemary Palmer at Lockport Memorial Hospital.

To become a Retired Senior Volunteer for the Breast Health Initiative, contact Mrs. Binga at the Health Association of Niagara County office in Niagara Falls at 285-8224.