SALT LAKE CITY — Pink ribbons tied to trees are fluttering in the wind this month at St. Mark’s Hospital.
The names Ruth and Retha are written two of the ribbons in memory of Chris Fitch’s aunt and cousin. Fitch’s aunt beat breast cancer and later passed away from other causes, but her cousin, Retha, succumbed to the disease.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. Statistics vary, but approximately 1 in 7 women will have breast cancer sometime in their lives. The American Cancer Society estimates that 232,340 cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed and 39,620 women will die from breast cancer in 2013.
St. Mark’s Hospital hosted the 20th annual Pink Ribbon Tying and Health Fair on Tuesday to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Community members wrote names of loved ones who are fighters, survivors or victims of breast cancer on pink ribbons and tied them to trees around the hospital.
“We’re always trying to bring awareness because (Utah is) actually 49th out of 50 states for screening, so we need to get more people screened,” said Leslie Milano, director of the Women's Diagnostic Center at St. Mark’s Hospital. “Our screening rate is very, very low in Utah. It seems to be that people just say they don’t have time, which I think is a terrible excuse. You don’t have time to take care of yourself?”
Utah is the second-lowest in mammogram rates and has the highest rate of breast cancer caught in late stages, according to Cidne Christensen of the American Cancer Society.
“If caught in Stage 1, most women will survive breast cancer,” Christensen said. “When caught in Stages 3 or 4, the likelihood decreases a lot.”
Milano, who has been a mammographer at the hospital since 1994, says women should have a yearly mammogram starting at age 40 — and earlier if there’s a family history of breast cancer. The process doesn't take long, she said.
“The actual mammogram procedure itself is only about 10 minutes,” Milano said. “You can walk in, register, get your history done and have the mammogram in about 30 minutes. It’s very quick.”
A regular mammogram is covered by insurance. However, the center also offers tomographic mammograms, which are not yet covered by insurance. Tomosynthesis is the same procedure as a regular digital mammogram except that an arc of images are taken and put together to create a 3-D image that allows for an individual look at each millimeter of breast tissue.
This month, the procedure is being offered for $99 instead of the $170 regular price.
“It’s the same four views (as a regular mammogram), but it just takes three seconds longer for each view,” said Rae Adair, a mammographer at St. Mark’s Hospital. “So it’s not a totally separate exam, but it’s in conjunction with the regular mammogram.”
Adair and Milano both recommend tomosynthesis because it has reduced the callback rate by 30 percent and increased cancer detection from screening mammograms by 20 percent over the past year the hospital has used the technology.
“When the tissue gets compressed, sometimes it looks like something is there when there isn’t, so we can tell with tomography if that’s real or not,” Adair said.
Tomographic mammograms require a little more radiation than a digital mammogram, but still less than a film screening. Most hospitals switched from film to digital screenings by 2008, hospital officials said.
Adair said the minimal increase in radiation is worth it.
“We’re finding (problems) a lot smaller, a lot earlier, probably about eight to nine years before you could ever feel anything,” she said. “I think once women realize that 3-D is the way to go, it’s going to take off.”
St. Mark’s Hospital will continue to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month by giving a gift to women who come in for a mammogram in October, sponsoring the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event on Oct. 12, and providing a weekly support group for breast cancer survivors at 6 p.m. Thursdays throughout the month.
“I don’t know very many people that haven’t been touched by breast cancer in one form or another,” Milano said. “It’s been taboo to talk about breasts for so long that it’s good that we have open conversations. This about saving your life. Get screened. Get checked. Be proactive in your own health.”
Stacy Ropelato, a certified nursing assistant, put up a ribbon Tuesday morning for her aunt who had breast cancer twice and beat it both times.
Ropelato urges women to get a mammogram.
“Don’t be hesitant," she said. "It’ll save your life.”
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