Suzanne Barrett knew the area had higher rates of breast cancer and was able to get more funding for screenings. But the results of those tests were surprising even to her.
Through the "Breast Tests and More" program at East Central Health District, 12 cases of breast cancer are expected out of roughly 700 screenings, said Mrs. Barrett, the program's coordinator.
That rate would be roughly seven times the national rate for women of comparable age, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society.
Final figures will not be available until the program's year ends in June, Mrs. Barrett said.
"We have found an unusually large number of breast cancers in our screenings this year," said Nancy Weber, wellness outreach coordinator for the program. "We would probably have expected about half that."
The preliminary results include at least four women in Emanuel County and health district officials will be trying to find if there are any links between the cases, Mrs. Barrett said.
"If they live in the same area, what their ages are," and so forth, Mrs. Barrett said.
The high number of cases there could be because that county had the highest usage of the program, said Elise Gladstone of the district office of the American Cancer Society, who closely monitors the program. There could also be family links to breast cancer, she said.
The health district, which covers 13 counties including Richmond and Columbia, received $36,000 more this year for the breast cancer screenings for women ages 50 and up who are expected to be at higher risk for breast cancer, Mrs. Barrett said.
Medicare now covers yearly screenings for those 65 and older, she said.
The high number of cases could be coming from women who just never have gotten tested before, Ms. Gladstone said.
"I don't think they're getting it more but we're now diagnosing it," Ms. Gladstone said.
"We do a lot of first-time mammograms," Mrs. Barrett said.
Living in a rural area could mean that the women just don't have access to the tests, which the program contracts with local hospitals or clinics to provide, Mrs. Barrett said.
In some cases, the district has sent in a mobile mammogram to counties that don't have a provider, she said. It is already difficult to get some women to go in for the test, Ms. Gladstone said.
"I know a lot of women are looking for excuses not get a mammogram because they're afraid of what they'll find," she said. But the women may not realize that 96 percent of breast cancer cases survive at least five years afterward, Ms. Gladstone said.
And recently announced findings that the osteoporosis drugs tamoxifen and now raloxifene have been effective in preventing some breast cancers just add to the optimism, Ms. Gladstone said.
"I think for well-informed women, it's extremely encouraging," she said.
The trick is now to reach and screen those who haven't gotten the news, she said.
The East Central Health District offers free mammograms and other screenings to women 50 and over who qualify by income or lack of insurance. For more information, call (706) 724-4214, ext. 26, or call your county Health Department.