Between identifying early signs and symptoms and beginning focused treatment, uninsured breast cancer patients often find services requested and required aren’t as readily available as they might hope or need.
Linda Graves, the nurse manager at the Columbia County Health Department, said initial symptoms, typically identified as lumps, often are discovered during examinations at the Health Department. A cancer, once diagnosed and confirmed, is covered under the Women’s Health Medicaid program.
But getting that diagnosis, Graves said, can be tricky.
“We have the Georgia Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, but it’s very restrictive,” she said. “It’s also underfunded. We often find that we reach our cap before the end of the year.”
The Georgia Breast and Cervical Cancer program provides clinical breast exams, mammograms and follow-up required for an official breast cancer diagnosis. It also provides pap tests, pelvic exams and follow-ups for a cervical cancer diagnosis.
Part of the problem, Graves said, is that the breast cancer program is available only to uninsured women between the ages of 40 and 64 whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the poverty threshold. The cervical cancer program is available only to uninsured women between the ages of 21 and 64 whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
“It’s a challenge,” Graves said. “Because even then there is a waiting list.”
She said the Health Center has responded by establishing a network of public clinics, hospitals and doctors in the area that have come up with a variety of plans to ensure uninsured patients get the diagnosis they require. Graves said part of her job is putting patients in the program that best suits their needs. She said it’s about doing a lot with very little.
“But of course, that’s nothing new in the public health system,” she said with a wry laugh.
While the fight to get women diagnosed could easily make Graves cynical, she said success stories keep her motivated and focused. She said she gets a Christmas card every year from a woman who addresses her as “her angel.”
“We detected a breast lump during a routine exam and got her a mammogram and diagnosis,” Graves said. “It was cancer. Finding that lump, getting that diagnosis, well, that saved her life.
“That makes it all worthwhile.”