Woman's diagnosis drives home importance of mammography

October 12, 1994|By Consella A. Lee RTC | Consella A. Lee RTC,Sun Staff Writer

It took the discovery of a tiny tumor in her left breast three years ago to teach Ann Engel the danger of skipping regular breast exams. Her story is one she and the mammography unit at North Arundel Hospital hope to impress on other women for a lifetime.

They figure October, recognized nationally as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a good time to tell Mrs. Engel's story to remind women the hospital offers free and low-cost mammograms as part of a statewide initiative to reduce cancer rates in Maryland.

Mr. Engel had no history of breast cancer in her family. Her first mammogram a few years ago showed nothing, so she skipped regular tests.

"I would just put it off and put it off," said Mrs. Engel, a retired North Arundel Hospital secretary. "I had no symptoms at all and I had no lumps -- no reasons to believe I had breast cancer."

But she read fliers distributed at the hospital touting breast cancer month and finally went for an exam. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy and is now in remission.

"It was really a surprise. I was just stunned by the news. I never expected it," said Mrs. Engel, 65, who now gets regular breast cancer check-ups, as do her sister and her daughters.

Women generally avoid the screenings because of the cost or because their family doctors didn't order the tests, said Susan Griffin, program coordinator at North Arundel. Others said they didn't bother because they had no symptoms or that they were afraid of the results. And some believe that having one mammogram "makes you safe forever," said Ms. Griffin.

Officials at the hospital, one of 28 in Maryland offering the screenings, say that only 65 of the 265 women tested last year have returned for follow-up exams, despite phone calls and letters, some sent by certified mail to remind them.

The program targets women over 40 who do not have health insurance or whose insurance does not cover the cost of mammograms.

The most the hospital can charge for a mammogram is $45, about half the regular cost. The hospital offers an installment plan for women who need it. The hospital will also try to help women who need transportation.

The results are sent to the patients' physicians, and the hospital tries to help those diagnosed with breast cancer to find care, said Alison Tavik, a hospital spokeswoman.

Women should have their first mammogram when they are between 35 and 40. Women 40 to 49 should have one every other year, and those over 50 should go annually, said Ms. Griffin.

A survey done two years ago by Johns Hopkins University showed that Anne Arundel County had a higher breast cancer mortality rate than the state average. It also found that women in Anne Arundel were less likely to have had a mammogram, even though the county has a greater number of health care facilities that offer mammography than surrounding counties, said Ms. Tavik, a North Arundel spokeswoman.

"It surprises me how women don't have a mammogram, and I tell them my little story, hoping I can reach them, because an early diagnosis is very important," Mrs. Engel said.

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