By Michelle Wysocki
Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shared the news that his longtime partner, Sandra Lee, had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. As a well-known TV personality, I commend Lee for making public a very private experience. Because her cancer was discovered at an early stage, Lee had options to choose from a wider range of successful treatments than if her cancer had not been caught until it had progressed to a more advanced stage.
Cancer shows no partiality to the affluent, the disadvantaged or persons in between. However, a difference in outcomes becomes apparent when comparing both early and late detection rates and access to care. Timely breast cancer screening – mammograms and breast exams – are vital to the wellbeing of all women. While screening guidelines may vary depending on a woman’s age and risk, mammograms remain the gold standard and the best way to detect early stage breast cancer.
Unfortunately, in Erie County the mammogram rate is lower than in both New York State and the nation. Since the mammogram screening rate is lower, early cancer detection opportunities are also low. When women are not diagnosed with breast cancer until the disease’s later stages, they are more likely to die from breast cancer. Erie County has a higher death rate from breast cancer than is seen in other parts of our state and the entire United States.
Studies show that the lack of health insurance is a tremendous barrier to regular mammogram screening. As well, screening is underutilized by women with no regular source of health care.
The expanded health insurance options provided by the Affordable Care Act, the New York State Marketplace and the Erie County Cancer Services Program have helped to decrease the financial barrier. This has provided affordable or free access to screening and diagnostic services. Frustratingly, the mammogram screening rates in Erie County remain low.
In addition to the financial barrier faced by uninsured or underinsured women, several other factors act as impediments to women in need of appropriate screenings. Some women receive health insurance coverage but they do not have the ability to take time off from work to obtain their recommended cancer screenings. One solution to this would be for employers to provide dedicated time off solely for employees to receive cancer screenings.
I strongly urge that both as individuals and a community that we support efforts to increase cancer screening rates for all women.
The Cancer Services Program of Erie County provides breast, cervical and colon cancer screening at no cost for uninsured and underinsured residents. For more information, call (716) 858-7376.
Michelle Wysocki, RN, is director of the Cancer Services Program of Erie County.