Get tested, learn more
Low-income women ages 40 to 64 are eligible for free Pap tests and/or mammograms through the Women's Wellness Connection program. For more information, call the VNA at 879-1632 in Steamboat Springs or 824-8233 in Craig, or call Planned Parenthood at 879-2212. To find out if you qualify for the free tests, visit www.womenswellnes.... For more information about risks related to breast, cervical and other cancers, visit www.cancer.org or www.imaginis.com.
Exercise more, eat better and quit smoking - these are just a few goals likely to show up on many to-do lists for 2009.
Beyond these positive health measures, however, older adults may be forgetting another important goal: regular health and cancer screenings. For women 40 and older, these should include annual mammograms, which screen for breast cancer, and regular Pap tests for cervical cancer.
Most health professionals agree that older women are not getting tested often enough. A big reason for this is financial: Pap tests and pelvic exams usually cost about $150, and mammograms can cost between $200 and $300. These fees are not an option for many women living on limited incomes with inadequate or no health insurance.
The Women's Wellness Connection, a program funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, seeks to address this problem by offering free screenings for eligible low-income women.
The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and Planned Parenthood are local providers of the program, which pays for annual Pap tests and pelvic exams for eligible women ages 40 through 64 (until they are eligible for Medicare benefits at 65) and free annual mammograms for women ages 50 through 64.
Women usually do not experience any physical symptoms during the early stages of cervical cancer and most breast cancers. The ability for health providers to catch abnormalities early with Pap tests and mammograms has helped many women survive the diseases.
"Early diagnosis can save a woman's life," said Jill Antell, a VNA nurse practitioner who works with clients in the Women's Wellness Connection program.
Breast cancer risk
About two out of three women with invasive breast cancer (cancer traveling outside the ducts of the breast) are 55 or older, according to the American Cancer Society.
A woman's breast cancer risk may be related to a variety of factors. Although a woman cannot control some risk factors, such as her age or family history, research has indicated other risks may involve lifestyle choices.
For example, alcohol, excess body weight and long-term use of a type of hormone replacement therapy used to treat menopause all have been linked to higher breast cancer risk.
However, the American Cancer Society emphasizes that some women who have one or more risk factors never get breast cancer, while most women who do get breast cancer don't have any risk factors.
It's this uncertainty that makes mammograms, or X-rays of the breast, all the more important. The Cancer Society recommends that women have annual mammograms and clinical breast exams starting at age 40.
Every woman's breast tissue is different, so regular screenings help health providers find small changes in a woman's breast tissue. In between doctor visits, women of all ages are encouraged to do monthly breast self-exams so they are more likely to notice lumps, swelling, skin irritation and other abnormalities. For a guide on how to do this correctly, visit www.mayoclinic.com and type "breast self-exam" in the search box.
Cervical cancer risk
The case for why older women should have regular Pap tests isn't quite as simple as that for breast cancer. Although women 30 or older are less likely than younger women to be infected by the virus that can cause cervical cancer, they are more likely to develop cancer if they do get the virus, Antell explained.
The human papilloma virus is the most important risk factor involved in cervical cancer. There are many types of the virus, some of which can develop into cancer. HPV is transmitted during sexual contact.
The Pap test can help a health provider detect cell abnormalities pointing to an HPV infection. A woman's body, especially if she is younger than 30, usually fights off the virus. In some cases, however, it can persist and turn into cancer.
Women 30 and older with slightly abnormal Pap tests also may receive an HPV test to determine whether they are infected with high-risk HPV and whether more testing or treatment may be needed.
Beginning at age 30, women who have had three normal Pap tests in a row can consider having the test every two to three years or may consider having a Pap test and HPV test every three years, according to Cancer Society recommendations. Women who have HPV or a weakened immune system may need to have Pap tests annually.
Other factors that can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer include smoking, family history, excess weight and a diet low in fruits and vegetables.
Resources are available to help young low income women receive regular Pap tests. For more information, call the VNA's Family Planning program at 879-1632 or 824-8233.
This article contains information from www.cancer.org and www.womenswellnessconnection.org.
Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information or to view past articles, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 871-7676.