At 49, Alice Day has a lot of life to live.
She’s a grandmother but she also is raising teenage sons. In fact, when I caught up to her Monday afternoon, she was on her way to drop her son off at an ACT/SAT preparation class.
Because she works as a housekeeper at a nursing home, Day sees how cancer is ravaging the bodies of so many seniors. So when she heard from a church member that local hospitals would provide free mammograms, she was on it.
“I remember one man who said he would never go to the doctor. Maybe that is how it was back in his time, but he would never go, and that cancer had spread. It really frightened me. It was a real eye-opener,” she said.
“I would like to see my sons as adults and if I don’t take care of me, what do they have when I’m gone?” she asked.
But most women in Day’s position don’t have the resources to access mammograms, and that has been a contributing factor to a disparity that continues to frustrate health-care providers.
“When the data came out from Sinai Urban Health Institute that showed the disparity between blacks and whites in Chicago was growing over 20 years, and that while the death rate had come down for white women, nothing had changed for black women, it was kind of shocking,” said Anne Marie Murphy, executive director of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force.
“We have new imaging, new technology and much better treatment, but Chicago has the dubious distinction of having the lowest mammography screening rate for women on Medicare and has one of the highest racial health disparities in breast cancer in the country,” Murphy noted. “We rolled up our sleeves and called everyone and their brother.”
The result was phenomenal. The citywide mammogram screening initiative, dubbed “Beyond October” will provide 800 free mammograms to uninsured women in the Chicago area.
All uninsured women have to do to sign up for a free mammogram is visit www.chicagobreastcancer.org or call (312) 942-1899.
To date, the 501(c) 3 charitable group has received commitments for 800 free mammograms. Two hundred women have already signed up. There are 600 mammograms that are still available through the end of the year, but applicants must sign up by Dec. 1.
“There is quite a long list of hospitals willing to participate. We don’t want there to be one woman out there who doesn’t access the program and is later diagnosed with breast cancer,” Murphy said.
Like many of the conditions that plague the African-American community, this disease is often treated like an unavoidable plague.
But there are positive steps that can be taken to help black women survive breast cancer.
Dr. David Ansell has been at the forefront of efforts to end the disparity. Ansell is the chief medical officer at Rush Medical Center. He helped launch the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Center Task Force in 2007 because of what he considers a “shameful disparity.”
“It doesn’t need to be. We know the gap in mortality doesn’t exist in every city,” he said.
If the doctor were standing before an audience of women in Day’s position, his message would be direct: “It is really important that you get screened. The thing about breast cancer is the screening, early detection and access to high-quality care. We know for a fact that when women have access to high-quality care regardless of race, there is no difference in the initial presentation of breast cancer. I would encourage women to get a mammogram,” he said.
“The reason we set up this program is because the state and others have left large gaps in access to care so women don’t get these basic things done. They are afraid of the costs. The state programs should cover all women but are only able to cover a fraction of women,” Ansell pointed out.
Twelve local hospitals, including Rush Oak Park and Advocate South Suburban, agreed to donate mammograms so that low-income women could access this critical screening.
As a breast cancer survivor, I know Pinktober just ended, and for many of us the messaging may have been overwhelming.
But the pink, the walks and 3K runs, and the programs at churches and community centers are designed to encourage women to take responsibility for their health.
The task force has done its job. Now it’s our turn.
These free mammograms will save lives. So if you’re good, then reach out to an uninsured friend with this early Christmas gift.