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Regional outreach project aims to increase cancer screening

WILLMAR -- A new regional project aims to increase the number of women being screened for breast cancer. The Affiliated Community Health Foundation recently received an $88,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Minnesota Affi...

WILLMAR -- A new regional project aims to increase the number of women being screened for breast cancer.

The Affiliated Community Health Foundation recently received an $88,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Minnesota Affiliate to develop the outreach effort, which is being launched this summer. The grant is for one year, with a chance to apply for a second year of funding.

There's general consensus in the medical community that mammograms are an effective screening tool for early detection of breast cancer. Yet area health care providers were taken aback at the results of a recent survey showing the screening rate in southwestern Minnesota is below the state average.

"Women in our area were at about 50 percent of what you would expect, which was a pretty startling number to us," said Greg Spartz, director of the Affiliated Community Health Foundation. "We thought that demonstrated a pretty strong need."

The funds have enabled Affiliated to hire Dawn Cocchiarella as a full-time outreach coordinator. The grant also includes money for promotional activities and for transportation costs to get women in for mammograms.

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The outreach project involves 11 counties in west-central and southwestern Minnesota. By next spring, organizers hope to see 600 more women undergoing mammography screening at the region's 13 medical clinics.

They also want to develop at least four volunteer coalitions so that outreach and education can continue over the long term.

"One of our goals is sustainability. We want the communities to take charge. We hope we can find those special champions," said Andrea Carruthers, care improvement coordinator for Affiliated Community Medical Centers, a regional multispecialty group with 12 medical clinics in 11 area cities.

It's not clear why the region's rate of breast-cancer screening is lower than the 80 percent state average.

Mammograms can be obtained at most, if not all, of the area's medical clinics, so it's not that the technology isn't available, Carruthers said. "We didn't think it had anything to do with the capacity to deliver services. It had more to do with women's awareness of the value of having mammograms."

Why do women skip this screening?

Age and female gender are the two biggest risk factors for breast cancer -- and the majority of cases aren't linked to any family history of the disease, Cocchiarella said. Yet many women don't see themselves at risk, she said.

In the press of daily life, it's easy for women to put off scheduling a mammogram, she said. "It's just something that keeps getting pushed aside. Before you know it, months and years have gone by."

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Women don't necessarily make the connection between screening, early detection and longer survival, she said.

Difficulties with transportation also come into play, as do the growing number of health plans that either have high deductibles or don't cover basic screenings.

Spartz said there may be some knowledge gaps among the region's minority women too. "We think there's some vacuums this grant will help us fill," he said.

One of the things Cocchiarella wants to do is collect data on why women don't get mammograms. The information will help shape specific strategies for improving outreach, she said.

Much of her work will involve networking and being visible to the region's health care providers, churches, volunteers and community groups. By the time the grant year ends, she hopes to have made contact with 2,000 women.

Besides increasing the regional rate of screening for breast cancer, organizers think they'll also be able to increase the number of referrals to SAGE, a state program that helps pay for breast and cervical cancer screening and followup for eligible low-income women.

The program, which is coordinated regionally by Affiliated Community Medical Centers, helps diagnose four to six cancers each year, Spartz said.

Organizers believe the Komen Foundation grant project is one of only a few like it in the state.

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"We're hoping the success we have in the first year will give us opportunity to apply again for funds," Spartz said. "The other providers also are interested. I think many people in the region share the same passion about prevention and early detection where breast cancer is concerned."

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