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Early detection of breast cancer critical

Since the Crenshaw Community Hospital was licensed to perform mammograms in May 2004, radiology technologists Debra Smith and Vicki Billings have completed over 160 of the procedures designed to detect early occurrences of breast cancer.

The state-of-the art equipment was installed last year, something desired by the hospital administration to offer as a service to the community. The equipment has already more than paid off - Smith said early indications of breast cancer have been detected and confirmed in six patients. With breast cancer, as with other forms of the disease, early detection is critical to the well being of the victim.

The mammogram itself is a relatively painless procedure, said Smith. There is some discomfort because the machine presses the breast tissue to ensure a clear X-ray but otherwise it's quick and harmless.

Both Smith and Billings are qualified to conduct mammograms. Both had to pass numerous tests and the hospital also had to meet a number of different requirements as specified by the Food and Drug Administration. The mammogram machine is tested weekly and the results logged. The FDA, said Smith, is especially strict with hospitals on how mammograms are performed.

"There's a lot of radiation hitting the chest wall," she said. "You don't want to scan a patient four or five times because the machine's wrong or the personnel is not qualified. That's why the FDA takes such precautions with the hospitals and why there's so much training that goes into doing this job."

If there's any indication that the machine is potentially in error, Smith said the hospital would not do mammograms until the equipment is prepared.

Smith said the procedure could be a 'nervous' experience for someone who has never had a mammogram.

"I think the fear is what keeps women from having a mammogram," she said. "Some may think 'I don't need to have this' and put it off. But as a woman ages that's when the risk (of breast cancer) goes up. The older you are the more chances you have of getting breast cancer."

Women especially should be aware because breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among females.

But Smith also notes that men can contract breast cancer as easily as women, although it is much rarer.

Breast health, said Smith, starts with breast self-exams, clinical exams and complete mammograms yearly for women age 40 or older.

A self-exam should be done monthly and helps make a woman aware about the feel and look of her breasts. Some warning signs of breast cancer include: a bloody discharge from the nipple, a change in skin color (like redness) or texture, a single distinct lump that feels different from the tissue around it, or an indention in the breast (- courtesy Alabama Department of Public Health).

Clinical breast exams are visual examinations conducted by a physician. This along with self-exams and mammograms ensure adequate precautions are taken for catching breast cancer at its earliest.

CCH Public Relations Director Bonnie Trotter said the hospital's mammogram service is here for the community.

"Anyone wishing to schedule a mammogram can contact their physician or the radiology department (335-1113) here at the hospital," she said.

Mammograms, said Trotter, are performed Monday through Friday. The hospital is also a provider for the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program that offers free mammograms for qualified candidates. People can find out if they qualify by contacting their physician.