More women beating breast cancer, Arundel figures show Health department program attempts to educate and provide early detection

November 04, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County public health officials proudly show off a simple bar graph with a dramatic dip in the end. It's the equivalent of an Oscar, a Tony or a Pulitzer Prize in their business.

The dip means women's lives saved.

After about a decade of skyrocketing cancer rates among men and women in Anne Arundel that exceeded those of the state and nation, the county Health Department began a campaign in 1991 promoting healthier living.

For breast cancer, it was simpleand common sense: Get area doctors and hospitals to offer free or low-cost mammograms, remind women about their appointments and give them rides and drum up news media coverage of breast cancer awareness.

Now, mortality rates in the county for all cancers among men and women are declining, and the mortality rate for breast cancer, the second deadliest cancer for women in the county, is also dropping.

"In public health, this is drama," said Frances B. Phillips, county health officer. "We made an investment, and it's paying off."

For scores of women, such as Marsha Foster, a 56-year-old Annapolis mother, the graph is more than an occupational accomplishment. The health tips the Health Department pushed -- having routine mammograms and doing breast self-exams -- helped save her life.

According to Health Department statistics, the extra mammogram screenings have saved 20 women a year who have cancers in early stages.

"It's not enough to fill a jumbo jet, but it might fill a bus," said Dr. Katherine Farrell, deputy health officer.

As an operator for the Health Department's cancer prevention line, Foster was well aware of how a low-fat diet and exercise could help prevent cancer. But even twice-a-year mammograms did not detect the large cancerous lump she found in her right breast during a self-exam about 18 months ago.

Now, after two surgeries and several months of chemotherapy, Foster is finding she is not alone in suffering, but also in living, with the disease.

"Almost everybody I talk to is a survivor," she said. "It feels like an epidemic."

The kind of epidemic health officials like hearing about.

Six years ago, when they took a look at the latest cancer statistics -- then from 1983 to 1987 -- Anne Arundel residents were dying at a faster rate from lung, colon and breast cancer than residents in any other Maryland county. The rate was higher than for the nation as a whole as well.

The shocking statistics prompted the county executive to create of a task force on cancer control.

Public health officials discovered through another study that the reasons for the high breast cancer mortality rates in Anne Arundel -- lack of routine mammography screening and poor eating habits -- were behaviors they could easily help women change.

"In 1992, breast cancer was a challenge," Phillips said. "We knew we had to get to people and get them to change their behavior in a broad way. We needed to have the people who live in this county hear the same message from a lot of different people."

Within a year, the Learn to Live campaign was born, and began to pump out fliers and brochures, advertising in newspapers and on television, cable and radio. The county Health Department campaign also created a help line that residents could call for referrals to see a doctor, get low-fat recipes, or cancer prevention tips.

In five years, the program has cost about $1 million, but Phillips said the department has received about as much from local businesses in free advertising and services.

Through a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department, the county worked with private physicians throughout Anne Arundel getting them to accept a flat fee and to provide free cancer screenings for poor patients. The county got rides for patients who had no way to get to a doctor.

"It's an excellent service," said Dr. Joan Lehmann of Women and Teen Health in Crofton. "It's not competing with anyone at all. They're providing service for people who would not get it."

The department also sought help from area hospitals, working with them to offer lower-cost screenings to patients referred by the Health Department. The local hospitals also developed their own programs to give free transportation and screenings for women in their 40s.

"The physicians participated in this program knowing that they had money to treat the patients," said Dr. Stanley Watkins, an Anne Arundel Medical Center associate. "The physicians were more comfortable knowing that the patients could afford it."

The results have been tremendous and fast.

Between 1991 and 1994, the number of women in the county getting annual mammograms doubled from 35 percent to 70 percent, according to a Health Department report. And from 1992 to 1993, the number of women dying from breast cancer dropped from 33 per 100,000 residents to 22.

Incidence of breast cancer has also increased, but health experts say that figure is up because more women are getting screened.

Smoking rates have fallen and the percentage of adults eating tTC healthier have nearly doubled, according to the report.

The county has given out more than 800,000 pieces of Learn to Live literature and reached more than 93,000 people with its cancer prevention message. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other county health departments now use some of Anne Arundel's Learn to Live literature.

But the health officers have no time to rest on their laurels.

Statistics show only 25 percent of the women in Anne Arundel over 65 get regular mammograms, and 76 percent of adults do not eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

"It's clear we've made good progress in helping citizens reduce their cancer risk," Farrell said. "However, it's also clear there's still plenty to be done."

Anyone interested in the Health Department services should call the cancer prevention line at 410-222-7979.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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