October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Mark Twain St. Joseph Hospital’s radiology department is ready and waiting for the more than 200 women they expect to come through their doors for mammograms in the next four weeks. Wanda Martin, a mammogram technologist, says that the hospital could easily see almost twice that number, so scheduling an appointment should be a piece of cake.

The new GE Digital Mammogram equipment at MTSJH is leading edge, providing clear, accurate digital imaging of breast tissue for the most accurate readings that have been available to date. Martin says that the larger table on this machine also allows for more comfort for women undergoing the test.

Guidelines put out by the American Cancer Society say that women in their 20s and 30s should have a mammogram and a clinical breast exam, performed by a medical professional during a routine checkup, every three years and women 40 and over should have yearly tests. Because one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime and breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American women – second only to lung cancer – these tests are crucial to promoting longevity and a higher quality of life in women.

Today, there are more than 2.9 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. This includes women still being treated and those who have completed treatment. Death rates for breast cancer have been declining since the early 1990s, and the biggest decreases are in women age 50 and younger. It is believed that the improved survival rate is partially due to increased awareness, which has led to more women seeking mammograms, as well as to improved treatment. The chances that breast cancer will be responsible for a woman’s death are now down to 3 percent.

Still, nearly 227,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012. While great strides are being made against the disease, women must do their part and inform themselves of the recommendations, then make use of the technology available to them.

Some women who have had a mammogram that tested negative in the past erroneously believe that this one test result gives them a clean bill of health forever. Not true. The medical world has made great strides but it is still not known what causes breast cancer and when it might develop. Indeed, there is probably not just one cause. If someone tests negative this year for cancer, that is no guarantee that the disease will not develop in the future. That is why it is crucial for women to guard their health by undergoing the tests as recommended.

If one has never had a mammogram, it could be tempting to listen to the tales passed around in the rumor mill, phrases like, “It’s really uncomfortable to have a mammogram!”

Having your breast compressed for a few seconds on a smooth plastic “table” such as the one shown in the photo, while an image is taken is a lot less troubling when you consider the alternatives of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

While breast cancer can strike anyone, there are some women who are more at risk than others. Pay special attention if you can identify with one or more of the following statistics: Caucasian women over 50 who started their periods before age 12 or reached menopause after age 50, those who never had children or had their first child after age 30, and women who have one or more drinks of alcohol daily or are overweight and/or have used hormone replacement therapy five years or more – these women are at greater risk and should maintain a rigorous schedule of monthly breast self-examination and follow the prescribed regimen of mammograms and exams by their health care professional.

There is a huge bright side to the subject of breast cancer today. Women are surviving the disease at higher rates than ever before, and if surgery is required to treat it, the surgery is much less invasive than previously. In addition, drugs used to treat breast cancer are much less toxic to the system and radiation treatments are not nearly as invasive as they used to be.

Because of the Affordable Health Care Act, which puts emphasis on prevention, annual mammograms are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and almost all other insurance plans. There is no co-pay or other out-of-pocket expense. For those women who are uninsured, some free or low-cost programs are available this month only, while others are offered all year round. Call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 to learn about programs in this area, and go to its website, americancancersociety.org, for information on the disease.

Linda Field is an Enterprise community correspondent. Contact Linda at lindafi-eld@sbcglobal.net.