‘Screen Test’ celebrates 25 years of early cancer detection

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month coming up in October, officials are also marking a special anniversary related to screening that has ultimately helped save lives and lead to faster treatment.

Screen Test is celebrating 25 years of mobile mammography services across Alberta, which has detected thousands of cancers early and saved lives. The Alberta Health Services (AHS) program started at a single site, in Hinton, in 1991.

Today, two 16-metre semi-trailers visit more than 110 rural communities, including 23 indigenous communities, every year.

Screen Test has completed 466,858 mammograms for 178,000 Albertans. Out of those screened, more than 21,000 Albertans have had an abnormal result detected and were recalled for further testing. Out of those clients recalled, more than 2,500 – or 12% – had breast cancer detected.

According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer increases with age. In 2015, it was estimated that 82% of new breast cancer cases would occur in Canadian women over the age of 50.

Fifty-two per cent of breast cancers were expected to be diagnosed in women 50 to 69 years of age and 30% of breast cancers were expected to be diagnosed in women over the age of 69.

In 2015, an estimated 5,000 women were expected to die of breast cancer in Canada.

Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death in Canadian women, accounting for 14% of all cancer-related deaths. The proportion of women dying from breast cancer has been dropping incrementally over time, according to the Foundation.

The leading cause of cancer deaths in Canadian women continues to be lung cancer.

“Early detection is so important with cancer,” says Dr. Francois Belanger, AHS vice president, Quality and Chief Medical Officer. “The chance of dying from breast cancer is reduced by 30 per cent if detected early, and it is much easier to treat if it is localized to the breast and has not spread to other areas. Screening helps with this detection significantly.”

In the past, if a woman underwent a mammogram, it was usually after she had discovered a lump or experienced other breast symptoms.

“Our mobile screening units are able to reach women who otherwise may not get a screening mammogram,” Dr. Belanger says. “We can bring services to unique populations, and rural and remote communities as well. I want to thank the many staff and volunteers who have helped make this service so successful over the past 25 years.”

Because mammograms may not identify all types of breast cancer, patients are still advised to see their doctors for additional tests even if they have normal mammogram results but notice physical changes in their breasts, or can feel a lump.

Screen Test targets women 50 to 74; when women in Alberta turn 50, they receive an invitation letter to undergo a screening mammogram.

It is recommended women aged 50 to 74 have a screening mammogram at least every two years, and women between 40 and 49 who choose to be screened have a mammogram each year.

A year ago, Marlene Pieper became one of these clients. The Didsbury woman was volunteering with Screen Test when she underwent a mammogram, a decision that likely saved her life.

As a result of that mammogram, Pieper was referred for followup at which time her doctor confirmed she had breast cancer. A biopsy was done and the tumour was successfully removed the following month.

Pieper’s prognosis is positive. Having just completed her cancer treatments, she continues to volunteer with five AHS programs, including the Screen Test mammography clinics.

“I still do not know what may have happened if not for the mobile clinic,” says Pieper.

Visit www.screeningforlife.ca/breast for more information on the program, including eligibility and referrals.

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