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The Women's Agricultural Network

Mammogram Anyone? Mammogram Everyone!

By Debra Heleba

I just had my first mammogram. I’m overdue, having officially passed the 40-year-old mark, but like some women (the minority, I’ve learned) have somehow managed to put it off until now.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, a 2004 study showed that 75 percent of Vermont women 40 and older had a mammogram in the preceding two years.

That’s great news considering breast cancer remains the most commonly diagnosed cancer and leading cause of cancer deaths among women. At this point, there is no known way to prevent breast cancer, so our greatest defense against this disease is early detection through mammograms and clinical breast exams. And it seems that this approach is working!

As women have made breast cancer screening part of their annual or bi-annual health routines, statistics have shown that, while there has been no change in the number of breast cancer cases (between 1997 and 2001), there has been a significant decrease in breast cancer mortality.

If you, like me, are new to the world of all things “mammo,” you may find Vermont breast cancer statistics to be sobering (and definitely incentives to act) confusing, yet somewhat hopeful.

For example, each year, in Vermont, approximately 482 breast cancer cases are diagnosed in women, yet when found early—which seems to be the case in Vermont with 65 percent of cases diagnosed at an early stage—there is a 96 percent chance for cure.

Breast cancer incidence rates were found to be significantly higher in Addison and Chittenden Counties than the U.S. rate for white women, yet are significantly lower in Franklin, Orleans, and Windham Counties. The literature I read didn’t indicate why this was the case but it may have to do with “risk factors.”

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes breast cancer, but have identified factors that have been shown to elevate a woman’s risk for developing the disease. These include things you have no control over like gender, age (breast cancer incidence increases with age; most women who get the disease are over 50), race (white women more likely to develop the disease than African-Americans), family history, and genetics.

Risk is also linked to some factors where you do have control like diet and lifestyle choices (including high fat diet, postmenopausal weight gain, level of exercise, and alcohol consumption).

Then there are some risk factors for which you may or may not have control. These risk factors include hormonal factors (including early onset of menses, late onset of menopause, having your first child after 35, never bearing children, and never breastfeeding).

What about farming—is it a risk factor?

There is presently little, yet contradictory, research out there. Some studies have found linkages between breast cancer incidence and exposure to agricultural chemicals. Yet research conducted by the Agricultural Health Study (currently the largest study of health issues of U.S. farmers) have revealed that breast cancer rates of women farmers are about the same as their non-farming peers.

UK and Canadian studies have suggested that women with breast cancer were three times likely to have grown up or worked on a farm. But a North Carolina study found breast cancer rates among farm women to be lower than their non-farming peers.

One reason for the contradictions of these studies is that research on the health of farm women are few and far between and tend to include low participant numbers—we just don’t know enough to make any conclusions.

There is evidence, through a Michigan study, however, that farm women surveyed received breast cancer screenings as frequently as the general population. Again, that’s good news as we know that the earlier the detection, the better chances for cure.

In Vermont, we are fortunate to have programs like Ladies First (call 1-800-508-2222 or visit www.LadiesFirstVt.org) that offer free mammograms and other health services for Vermont women who don’t have health insurance. The program even offers a special cash prize drawing for Ladies First members over 50 until November 30, 2008.

So why wait? Join me for a mammo “party!”

Last modified May 13 2009 10:10 PM

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