Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Mammogram voucher program gets $15K boost from Bras for a Cause

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Oct. 16—OTTUMWA — A $15,000 donation from Bras for a Cause will allow River Hills Community Health Center to help are women receive breast cancer screenings.

The annual fundraiser in Hedrick, founded by Laurie Hornback, a River Hills Nurse after her first battle with breast cancer, brought in about $27,000 this year. The funds donated to River Hills will go to the endowment fund, which supports the voucher program for mammograms and breast ultrasounds for uninsured patients.

"Even though there's been Medicaid expansion, there are still women who don't have insurance, and when you get into diagnostic medicine, it gets costly," said Rick Johnson, River Hills CEO. "If we didn't have these extra funds, it wouldn't be possible for these uninsured women to get mammograms or other services."

With the voucher program, nurses and practitioners at River Hills can refer their patient for the screening at Ottumwa Regional Health Center. A completed voucher form gets sent to ORHC with the patient's information, and the hospital knows to bill River Hills for the screening and reading, said Kari Rupe, marketing and family planning coordinator at River Hills. That bill is then paid from from the endowment fund, she said.

That can save the patient $200 to $250 for a mammogram (plus nearly an additional $100 to add on 3-D) or $400 for a breast ultrasound. Readings of the results range from just over $40 up to nearly $100, depending on the type of screening being done.

"These funds [from Bras for a Cause] will really help sustain the endowment," Rupe said. "We'll earmark this money for the mammogram program."

"We are co appreciative we received those funds from Bras for a Cause for our endowment fund," Johnson said. "This is really going to help us serve more people this year."

"As a nurse, I use the voucher program a lot for people who down't have insurance," Hornback said, saying she always likes to register patients for a 3-D mammogram. "It's a little bit more, but we want our patients to have that for the better picture. Also, always go to the same place, because you need that comparison.

"It's been a really great partnership with Ottumwa Regional," Johnson said, as well as Radiology Partners, who read the test results.

For Hornback, breast cancer screenings are personal. A two-time breast cancer survivor, she said both of her cases were caught by mammogram. It's also personal to Rupe and Johnson, whose mothers both fought breast cancer.

"There's just so much breast cancer, and just like colon cancer, the sooner you treat it, the better chance you have for a good outcome," Johnson said.

"It's the silent killer for women. It's the number-one cancer killer for women," he added, similar to what colon cancer is for men. However, he noted, breast cancer isn't just an issue for females.

"These funds can be used on a man, too, if there's an issue. Most people don't realize men can get breast cancer, too," he said. "I just don't think the public even really knows men can get breast cancer. Men need to understand you are not totally immune from developing breast cancer."

Looking up statistics on male breast cancer, Rupe noted there were 2,300 new cases of breast cancer in men with 500 deaths in 2017. "That [death rate] probably tells you that it goes undiagnosed and treated," she said, with the health professionals noting it's not something that's usually checked for unless there's an obvious concern."

The big challenge, though, is encouraging people to get the screenings done, often because of the financial aspect. "We go through the cancer screening on every woman every time," she said, saying that yearly mammograms are recommended for women over age 40.

"Sometimes it's just a challenge to get a person to do good preventative screenings. We can't force them to have a test," Johnson said. "If you don't have insurance, it's too costly for most people to afford to pay for them. Even people that have insurance have a large out-of-pocket expense.

"I do think these funds really do help because there are women who would follow through but don't have the financial means, sot it's really helped a lot of women.

"The other challenge is if they are diagnosed and need surgery, you have to figure out how to pay for it," he added.

Even getting a biopsy done, Hornback chimed in, is costly.

That's where more of the funds Bras for a Cause come in. Hornback said she is donating some of the remainder to Mahaska Health Partnership, while she intends to put the rest into a private Bras for a Cause account to help patients going through treatment. "I've always wanted to do that," Hornback said, adding that this was the first year she's done it. The funds, she said, can help patients with the cost of traveling to Des Moines or Iowa City for treatments. "I want to be able to do more."

The fundraiser has raised about $174,000 over its lifetime. "We've had some good years and some down years. This year was good," Hornback said, adding that about 275 people attended in 2021. In 2019, she said they fed 500 people at the event.

Bras for a Cause will return, but it will be a longer space between events. It used to be held in the spring and got moved to the fall in recent years. That time of year, Hornback said, doesn't work as well for her. "My plan is to bring it back into the spring and to shoot for April 2023."

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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