A staggering one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
Dr. Richard Zelkowitz, an oncologist at Norwalk Hospital, takes care of some of the local residents who are diagnosed, and he is adamant that if a woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer, "the earlier it is the better it is" because the disease is most treatable in the early stages.
And he stands by his belief that the best technique for detecting breast cancer early is the mammogram screening test.
That's why he is thrilled that Pink Aid, which helps underserved women in Fairfield County survive breast cancer treatment with support and dignity, has granted $160,000 to the Norwalk Hospital Foundation to fund a new mammogram transportation program.
Local women in need will now have access to free transportation to mammograms, also free, and follow-up transport to treatment, if needed. The hospital has been giving free mammograms since 2009.
The highest populations who continue to die from the disease are women who cannot afford a mammogram and African-American women.
"It's all about getting these ladies in who are not coming in," Zelkowitz said. "We know that population has bad insurance and is not as compliant with follow-ups.
"So if you can't get them to come to the mammogram, we are going to go get them and bring them to the mammogram. It's a very pragmatic thing."
Norwalk Hospital is partnering with the Norwalk Community Health Center, which currently serves a diverse population of local residents, many of whom are uninsured and underinsured. The Health Center is coordinating the scheduling of mammogram appointments, as well as continued health services as needed.
"We just want you to get your mammogram. We want to take care of you," Zelkowitz said. "If there's a problem, we want to find it early. And if there is a problem, we are going to take care of you. It's not even the people who don't have insurance, it is the people who have these humongous deductibles now.
"If just three more people get a mammogram because of this program and we find something early versus late, we are saving lives."
The Pink Aid grant will fund the cost of the new van, a licensed driver, a patient-care passenger, breast health educational materials and Pink Aid supermarket gift cards as program incentives, as well as the costs of the free mammograms and ultrasounds. The van will make scheduled trips to select Norwalk neighborhoods where the population of underinsured African-American and Hispanic women is the highest. Women will then be driven to and from Norwalk Hospital for their free screening and follow-up treatment, if needed.
"We are ready to get on the road now and are in the process of scheduling women through the Norwalk Community Health Center," Versea said via email. "If there is an issue women find after the mammogram, the woman's insurance will pay for treatment per their plan. If they do not have insurance, the Health Center will be able to advise them for financial applications for Medicaid or other assistance as available."
The thought of any woman not being able to get to treatment because she doesn't have the means is unimaginable to Amy Katz, a breast cancer survivor and president of the board of Pink Aid.
"It makes me sick to my stomach," said Katz, of Westport. "You can't go through something like that and think that's OK.
"The thought of a woman not feeling whole is devastating. If we can give as many women as possible the emotional support they need and provide services to get screened and for treatment if necessary, than we have made a real difference in our community,"
Katz said that Pink Aid began offering grants this year because it raised $500,000 at its third annual fundraiser.
In addition to funding the transportation program at Norwalk Hospital, the grants support programs that provide services including free mammograms, diagnostic testing, wigs, recovery garments, meals, child care, and help covering personal expenses for patients undergoing treatment.
The next Pink Aid fundraiser will be Oct. 3 at Mitchell's of Westport.
Women interested in scheduling an appointment can call the Norwalk Community Health Center at 203-899-1770.