Pink ribbons, walkathons, commercials. Breast cancer month is coming to an end and, as a breast cancer survivor, I know all too well that the importance of early detection cannot be stressed enough.
Fortunately, significant advancements have made this possible. Technologies such as breast MRIs allow doctors to diagnose breast cancer even earlier and to treat patients with more conservative methods. The American Cancer Society recommends that women at high risk for breast cancer (greater than 20 percent lifetime risk) get an MRI and a mammogram every year, and for good reason – early detection made possible by breast imaging has helped lead to a 30 percent reduction in breast cancer mortality over the past couple decades.
So why should women be concerned about the future of their breast health? Congress is currently considering proposals in health reform legislation that could impair access to vital advanced imaging tests, like MRIs, that so many women credit with detecting their breast cancers early and saving their lives. Although proposed cuts are specific to Medicare reimbursements, we can expect that private insurers will follow suit, presenting a widespread reduction in access to these important tests.
Limited access to imaging services could have been life changing for me. For years I received an annual mammogram and ultrasound that showed nothing significant. But I knew that my breasts had changed consistency and I feared breast cancer. A breast MRI immediately identified cancer in both breasts and my lymph glands. Shortly after my diagnosis, I underwent surgery and oncology treatment and I am now, thankfully, cancer free.
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But if we don’t act now, other women might not be so lucky. Proposed cuts to Medicare spending on medical imaging present a dire future for breast cancer detection for women who need imaging services the most. Medicare recipients, women over the age of 65, are at high risk for invasive breast cancer, which is detected by MRIs. The National Cancer Institute reports that from 2002-2006, the incidence of invasive breast cancer was 82.7 cases per 100,000 for women under 65, while the incidence of invasive breast cancer was 408.2 cases per 100,000 for women over 65.
Under the proposals, critical diagnostic services, not just MRIs, also stand to be cut significantly. The rate of mammography growth is shrinking in part because reimbursements for advanced imaging have subsidized mammographies – a vital screening which doctors actually lose money on. So, if we continue to arbitrarily reduce reimbursements for advanced imaging tests, doctors will also be forced to pull back on mammographies. This will have an adverse effect on the health of all women by deterring physicians from offering the tests rather than encouraging their use for prevention and early detection. These reductions are not warranted in light of recent findings, and they will negatively impact the care provided to Medicare beneficiaries.
Earlier this month I traveled from Bella Vista, Arkansas, to join hundreds of cancer survivors, doctors and advocates for a rally on Capitol Hill with the Access to Medical Imaging Coalition. We urged Congress not to cut spending on vital imaging services and you can speak up too. Help ensure your breast health won’t be at risk and email your Senators and Representatives! For more information, check out www.RightScanRightTime.org.