Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Where women in South LA can find accessible, affordable cancer screenings

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Although preemptive surgeries like Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy may greatly reduce your chance of getting cancer, doctors say this extreme measure is only intended for individuals who are at extremely high risk.

Next to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of the disease among women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every year cancer kills more than 250,000 women in America.

Although there are lifestyle changes and proactive measures women can take, many don't have the financial resources for advanced testing or preemptive surgeries.

Angelina Jolie announced last week she underwent a preventive double mastectomy after genetic testing showed she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer. After getting both breasts removed, her risk dropped to about 5 percent.

But CNN reports that the genetic testing alone can cost thousands of dollars, and depending on the situation, your insurance may not cover it. For many women, especially those who are under-insured or uninsured, the testing process may be too expensive and unnecessary.

Dr. Heather Macdonald, assistant professor of clinical OB/GYN and breast surgery at the University of Southern California (USC), said one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. And there is a system of risk assessment — based largely on family history — that doctors can use to determine  a woman's odds of getting  cancer.

There is one free test you can do right now as you're sitting at the computer.

Agustin Garcia, Associate Professor of Medicine at USC's Norris Cancer Center, said the Gail Model is a simple, interactive tool designed by scientists to help women evaluate their likelihood of developing breast cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the test is seven basic questions that help evaluate cancer risks for an individual woman. The test considers family history, the woman's age when she first gave birth and started her menstrual period, race/ethnicity, age and previous occurrences of breast cancer.

The NCI explains that the Gail Model was designed for use by health care professionals, so if you do take the test online, they encourage you to discuss the results with a doctor.

Other basic breast cancer screening procedures include mammograms (an x-ray of the breast) and clinical breast exams, where a physician feels a patient's breasts for lumps or changes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women over the age of 50 get a mammogram every two years, and women over the age of 40 should discuss the possibility of an earlier mammogram with their doctor.

Basic breast exams are available at free clinics in South L.A., including the Planned Parenthood at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Center for Medical Training. Doctors at this location also perform pap smears that screen for cervical cancer, as well as provide mammogram referrals.

St. John's Well Child and Family Center on 58th Street, also offers extensive women's health services, including breast and cervical cancer screenings.

The CDC recommends women also receive the HPV vaccine, which protects against most cervical cancers and some vaginal and vulvar cancers, as well as the Hepatitis B vaccine that can help reduce the risk of liver cancer. 

In addition to medical measures, women can reduce their risk of cancer by making some basic lifestyle adjustments. Health officials recommend avoiding tobacco altogether and limiting alcohol consumption, while also avoiding excessive exposure to the sun and maintaining an overall, healthy lifestyle.

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