Fall 2020 wasn’t exactly a convenient time for Pennsylvania Sen. Kim Ward to go in for a mammogram. The longtime Pittsburgh-area politician had just been named state Senate majority leader and as the first woman to hold the position, Ward wanted to get to work on legislation.
But after missing her scheduled scan in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ward knew it was important to keep the appointment. She was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer.
“I’m really glad I didn’t skip that mammogram — and I hope others don’t,” Ward, 60, said Tuesday at an event outside Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia to launch a new public health campaign urging women to get tested.
All health insurance policies must fully cover screening mammograms for women over 40 — a requirement of the Affordable Care Act — but not everyone has insurance. So as part of the initiative, Fox Chase, Temple Health, and the PA Breast Cancer Coalition will offer free mammograms on April 1 to the first 20 people who sign up. The free mammogram event is intended to improve access to screening for women without insurance and those who, like Ward, missed their routine screening during the pandemic.
“Early detection saves lives. Mammograms save lives. We want to make sure uninsured and under-insured women have access to 3-D mammograms,” said Pat Halpin-Murphy, president of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition.
Breast cancer accounts for about a third of new cancer cases among women, but if caught early, has a 99% five-year survival rate. Routine mammograms, which scan breast tissue for abnormalities, are recommended for women age 40 and older. Younger women may benefit from mammograms if they have a family history of breast cancer or breast tissue that is dense or fibrocystic.
Thousands of routine cancer screening tests, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, were delayed in the early months of the pandemic, when health systems halted all non-urgent medical procedures to reserve resources for COVID-19 response.
Screening mammograms were down 60% between March and July 2020, compared with previous years, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania. Even as doctors’ offices and testing facilities reopened, mammogram volume remained below expectations, researchers found.
Private health insurance, Medicaid and Medicare cover mammograms for eligible people. In Pennsylvania, private insurers are also required to cover 3-D mammograms, which are more accurate than traditional scans.
Still, cost — or fear of an unexpected bill — can deter people from scheduling an exam.
Anyone who needs a mammogram can sign up for the free screening event April 1, though organizers hope that they will be able to reach people in under-served communities, who may not have been tested for years.
Screenings will be done in Fox Chase’s Mobile Screening Unit, outside the future site of Temple’s women’s hospital, 1331 E. Wyoming Ave., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mammograms require an appointment, which can be scheduled by calling 215-728-3554. Everyone who gets screened will receive a $25 Walmart gift card.
The free mammogram event — which organizers hope to repeat — is an important step toward improving “equitable access to health screenings” and cancer treatment, said Michael Young, Temple’s president and CEO.
Ward didn’t speak publicly about her December 2020 diagnosis until she’d completed her treatment.
“I wanted to make sure nobody thought I couldn’t do my job,” she said.
Now, Ward travels across Pennsylvania to talk about her experience and urge others to get tested.
After four rounds of chemotherapy and a lumpectomy, doctors discovered she had a BRCA gene mutation that put her at risk of the cancer coming back. She had a double mastectomy to eliminate the risk.
“I was terrified of treatment,” she said. But putting off screening — and potentially missing cancer until it is harder to treat — is even scarier.
If you go
What: Get Your Mammogram Event
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 1
Where: 1331 E. Wyoming Ave., Philadelphia
Details: Appointments required. Call 215-728-3554 to schedule.