By Teresa Heinz Housel, LHWC Newsletter Editor Published December 2018
Having grown up in the United States, one of the benefits that I appreciate most about New Zealand’s health care system is the access to public health services. Some family members have managed serious and terminal illnesses with private insurance, but other relatives went untreated because they could not afford private insurance or to pay cash to a doctor or hospital.
Two weeks ago, I had my biennial mammogram screening through BreastScreen Aotearoa at my local hospital. My family has a history of breast cancer on both the paternal and material sides, so I am always anxious as I await the results. I try to eat well and exercise, but as a close friend said to me last week, “You can’t outrun genetics.”
Last week after my screening, I got the call that I had always dreaded: Something suspicious appeared on the x-ray and I needed to go back for tests. I booked immediately for the following morning.
The attending doctor and nurses were professional and kind at Hutt Hospital, but it was at times a terrifying week as I completed the tests and awaited the results. I used the meditation techniques that I had learned in Ruth Pink’s meditation workshops at the Lower Hutt Women’s Center to remain calm during the additional scans and biopsy. The doctor remarked several times that I appeared to be “somewhere else.” I was so thankful to be able to draw on those meditation techniques to somewhat quell my anxiety.
The results, thankfully, were benign in the end, but the experience reminded me how important it is for women to be educated and proactive about their health. According to the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, breast cancer is the number one cancer for women in New Zealand. More than 3,000 women are diagnosed each year, and more than 600 people die from the disease each year. One in nine women who are diagnosed everyday will be Maori.
I obtained my free mammogram through BreastScreen Aotearoa for well women aged 45-69. There have been 27 percent fewer deaths since this free screening started nationally in December 1998, but 30 percent of eligible women are not in the free screening, according to the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.
I have tried to keep up with my screenings since my early 30s because of my family’s history of breast cancer. However, the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ reports that 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be aged 50 and above, and 90–95 percent of the women have no breast cancer in the family.
My mammogram picked up microscopic cells that could have been pre-cancerous had they not been benign. Mammograms can detect small breast cancers as small as two millimetres, whereas tumours often grow to two or three centimetres (the size of a walnut or cherry) before they can be felt,
According to the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.
These health scares are truly rattling. I try to appreciate every day and not get upset by small issues that just waste time, but it’s easy to let time pass as we navigate through busy days of adult responsibilities. If anything, the experience reaffirmed the importance of health education, prevention, and early detection.
Use the BreastScreen Aotearoa services if you fall within the age range, or contact your GP for a referral for a free diagnostic mammogram if you have a high risk of breast cancer or show symptoms or signs. You can also get mammograms at private radiology clinics.
Please check out the resources about women’s health at the LHWC. The LHWC’s library offers many books about women’s health. You can also find informative pamphlets related to women’s health and wellness around the centre. If you have any questions, ask one of the LHWC staff or volunteers, and they will point you in the right direction.
For more information about breast cancer, please visit http://www.breastcancerfoundation.org.nz/. To learn more about BreastScreen Aotearoa and the elibility criteria, visit https://www.breastcancer.org.nz/aboutBC/ Detection/Screening-tests/BSA or phone 0800 270 200. You can also register for the screenings online: https://www. timetoscreen.nz/breast-screening/sign-up/.