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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Public Health’s Well Woman Program provides services to women of color

The Wisconsin Well Woman Program provides free breast and cervical cancer screenings for individuals with limited income and little or no health insurance.

Image By: Max Homstad

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — and to mark the occasion Public Health Madison and Dane County are urging women of color to be screened for breast cancer.

One in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. While breast cancer rates for white women have generally stabilized over the past few years, a disparity remains in breast cancer diagnoses and deaths for black women, according to Public Health Madison and Dane County.

The Wisconsin Well Woman Program is tackling the issue head-on, providing free breast and cervical cancer screenings for individuals with limited income and little or no health insurance.

The WWP, housed by Public Health Madison and Dane County, determines women’s eligibility, connects them to healthcare providers and tracks their results, according to program coordinator Kari Sievert. If a woman has an abnormal screening result, someone will follow up to make sure any additional services are provided.

Public Health Madison and Dane County has been coordinating the WWP since it was established in Wisconsin almost 25 years ago. The program itself receives federal funding, as it’s a part of the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Sievert has worked with WWP for over 20 years and has been able to identify important trends and changes throughout her time with the program — mainly in communities of color.

While the incident rate for breast cancer rate is the same regardless of race, Sievert stated that black women are 42 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. They’re also more likely to be diagnosed at later stages.

Unfortunately, [women of color] can experience delays in treatment, which can make a big difference in the overall outcome,” Sievert added. “It’s upsetting but important for people to know.”

Typhanny Greene has experienced these disparities first hand, more than most.

Born and raised in Madison, Greene, 42, works as an Administrative Assistant at East Madison Community Center. She has a grown-up son and a normal life.

Then, last year, her mother passed away from uterine cancer. And, that same year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Additionally, Greene’s sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer in her 30s. Fortunately, after a couple of operations and 20 rounds of radiation, Greene and her sister are now cancer-free. 

However, by the time their mother was diagnosed, her cancer was already Stage IV.

“You're given this range: between 40 and 50 [years old],” Greene said. “If I'd waited closer to 50, I'd probably be dead. Luckily, because of what I was going through with my mom, I went in right away.”

The entire transpiration of events put things in perspective for Greene — not just in how she wanted to live, but on how others went about living too.

“I wondered how many of my friends or my neighbors or people I see on a daily basis are not going and getting checkups because they're worried about health insurance,” Greene said. “They're worried copays, bills, debt, credit, all those things.”

Sievert hopes the Well Women Program will relieve some of those stresses.

While healthcare options largely impact trends within the WWP, Sievert explained that if a woman is diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer through the program and if she is a U.S. citizen, she would be eligible for Wisconsin Well Women Medicaid. All treatments would be covered.

Sievert noted there was a decrease in the number of women enrolling in the WWP when the Affordable Care Act was introduced. It was a good thing — ACA provided more coverage at the time.

“Unfortunately, what we've been seeing in the last year or so is women now shifting back into the Well Women Program because the premiums for coverage have gone up,” Sievert said. “Women can't afford it, which is disappointing.”

Since then, Greene made it her mission to inform as many as possible on the risks of going without breast and cervical cancer screenings. Last Saturday, with the Well Woman Program, she hosted the first African-American Breast Cancer Awareness Brunch. 

Greene just received her six month “all clear” and said that she has a lot to look forward to — she’s particularly excited about the possibility of one day being a grandma herself. But she will make sure that the next generation is prepared for the possibility of cancer.

“There are women in their 20s and 30s getting cancer,” Greene said. “[Doctors] aren't going to suggest you get a mammogram in your 20s, but if you know something is wrong, if you know the signs, if you're checking on a monthly basis, you could end up saving your own life.” 

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