Health: Breast cancer Hit and miss
Breast cancer detection in the North
NNSL (OCT 14/96) - Liza Gaudet is one of the lucky victims of breast cancer. She is alive because the lump was found early.

The 44-year-old Yellowknifer says she wouldn't be alive today without the early diagnosis of her cancer by the NWT's only mammography machine at the Yellowknife Stanton Hospital.

But not all women in the North have access to this service.

There isn't a mobile mammography machine or a breast-screening program in the NWT. Every other province and territory, except Prince Edward Island, has a screening program.

Four provinces -- British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia -- have mobile units.

"How many women would leave their community to come to Yellowknife to be checked?" Gaudet asks. "By the time they have to, it may be too late for them."

Without these services, she says, breast cancer diagnosis for women in the North is delayed unnecessarily.

Anita Chorneyko trains mammographers in Saskatchewan, where there is a portable machine and a screening program. She says the program, with an annual budget of $2.2 million, spends about $13,000 for every woman whose life is saved.

The $100,000 machine performs 30,000 mammographies every year.

Chorneyko says the cost of the equipment and the screening program together doesn't exceed the cost of treatment for those women diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gaudet wishes these services were in place in the NWT.

Diagnosed in November 1992, she knows first-hand the importance of getting treatment early.

"I asked my doctor for a mammography after I had discharge from one of my breasts," she says. "Because I was only 38, I was told I wasn't old enough to get one. I was made to feel like I was imagining things."

Doctors recommend that women age 50 and older get a mammogram every two years. The procedure is generally not done for women younger than 40 who don't have a family history of the disease.

Gaudet says this benchmark shouldn't be treated as a cutoff.

"These magic numbers aren't finding the cancer early enough," she says.

Within six months, she found a lump and was diagnosed with breast cancer after a mammography was finally done.

By this time, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and she required radiation treatment and chemotherapy.

"I was very angry when I was diagnosed because had I been given the mammography earlier, I probably wouldn't have required the chemotherapy," she says. "And it was very difficult to go through."

Gaudet says the delay had a profound effect.

"It has taken me four years to get back to where I was before my diagnosis," she says. Only now am I started to have faith in life again."

Gaudet can't stress the importance of early diagnosis enough. She says politicians have to make the decision to put the services in place.

"They have to start thinking of their mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and daughters," she says.

Last week, Jake Ootes, MLA for Yellowknife Centre, asked Health Minister Kelvin Ng to look into the purchase of a mobile mammography machine and the development of a screening program.

Ng said he would consider the issue if regional boards across the Arctic request it.

Dr. Richard Kinley, Director of Surgery at the Yellowknife Stanton Hospital, is one of several people who are drafting a proposal to present to the GNWT requesting a breast screening program. He says a screening program and mobile mammography machine is essential in the North.

"Any proper screening program will include a mobile unit," he says.

Gaudet says there's no doubt the equipment is needed. "Breast cancer and breast cancer awareness has to become relevant in the NWT," she says.

Otherwise more women will die because their cancer isn't diagnosed soon enough.