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Connecticut cancer survivors push for expansion of breast and ovarian cancer screenings

Cancer survivor Katie Heffernan Farrell of West Haven raises her Wonder Woman bracelet she wears. “I am a breast cancer survivor. It is only because I had insurance and was able to seek medical assessment that I am still alive,” she said at the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut April 13, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Cancer survivor Katie Heffernan Farrell of West Haven raises her Wonder Woman bracelet she wears. “I am a breast cancer survivor. It is only because I had insurance and was able to seek medical assessment that I am still alive,” she said at the state Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut, April 13, 2022.

Thousands of Connecticut residents are diagnosed with breast cancer or reproductive cancers, like cervical, ovarian and uterine, every year.

A majority of patients who are diagnosed early survive, state data shows, but the chances for recovery are dimmer when cancer is detected in an advanced stage.

Experts say the costs associated with some of these tests can prevent people from discovering the disease earlier.

“Cost should never stand in the way of the earliest possible early detection,” said Audrey Carlson, a Newington resident who just finished chemotherapy treatment for early-detected ovarian cancer. “Luckily, my insurance paid for everything. Unfortunately, and sadly, this is not the case for many other women, especially those with high out-of-pocket costs.”

Cancer survivors, patient advocates, doctors and lawmakers at the state Capitol Wednesday called on the legislature to pass two bills that would expand insurance coverage and no-cost programs for early-detection cancer screenings and tests, with a priority on high-risk and marginalized groups of people.

More than 3,000 women, and some men, in Connecticut are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. State data shows that Black women die at a significantly higher rate than white women, despite having a lower incidence rate.

There were 215 new cases of ovarian cancer in 2019, according to a report released this month. More than half – 58% – were detected at a late stage, when the cancer becomes more difficult to treat.

Less than a third of women survive past five years after an advanced diagnosis, relative to the general population.

“There is a social equity issue here we must address,” said Rep. Jillian Gilchrest (D-West Hartford), a lead sponsor of the bills.

Legislation would build on existing state laws that have expanded insurance coverage and notification policies for breast and reproductive cancers.

One bill would require insurance companies to cover mammograms and breast ultrasounds not just for screening purposes, but also for diagnostic reasons.

Breast cancer survivor Katie Farrell, 55, of West Haven, said this would help future patients who have experiences like her own.

She went for a routine screening mammogram, and no abnormalities were detected. However, Farrell had dense breast tissue, she said. Experts say ultrasounds are sometimes recommended for a more accurate screening.

Six months later, Farrell felt a lump in her breast and sought diagnostic testing, which involved another mammogram and this time an ultrasound. She was eventually diagnosed with two types of breast cancer, one aggressive. That was 11 years ago.

“I often think that had I been able to get that ultrasound sooner, would I have been spared the severe treatments and surgeries that I had to endure?” Farrell asked.

But she still considered herself lucky, since her private insurance covered most of her testing and much of her treatment. Family and friends helped raise money to cover other related costs.

“It’s impossible to think that somebody can’t get help and have a choice and a chance to fight to survive,” Farrell said. “It’s incredibly difficult, but to have the barrier of no insurance and no resources, I can’t imagine it. Like I said, I was really lucky.”

The pieces of legislation would also require insurance coverage for mammograms and other screening tests for people under age 35 if they have cancer risk factors, like genetic markers or a family history.

“These people should be getting yearly [breast] MRIs, and believe me, they are not covered,” said Dr. Michael Crain, president of the Radiological Society of Connecticut. “I have pleaded with people to get them.”

Insurance changes would apply only to state-regulated health insurance, like group and individual plans offered on the state’s Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Gilchrest said the General Assembly’s appropriations committee has increased funding in the state budget for the Connecticut Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which provides free screening services to women in underserved communities.

There is also additional funding proposed for increases in Medicaid reimbursements to providers who do mammographies for low-income residents.

Both bills passed out of the Public Health, and Insurance and Real Estate committees, respectively, last month. Each has bipartisan support in the legislature.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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