FARMINGTON — The face of breast cancer detection is changing, and because early detection is crucial, health care professionals are hoping that a new type of mammogram will encourage more women to come in for screenings.
Since last May, San Juan Regional Medical Center has been offering a relaxation-enhancing option called SensorySuite along with its digital mammograms. The SensorySuite allows women to choose between three relaxing environments that include a fragrant garden, a cascading waterfall and a relaxing beach. A large screen placed within eyesight of the patient allows her to experience the sights, sounds and smells of these soothing scenes while having her mammogram. A light scent matching the scene, as well as corresponding sounds such as birds chirping or waves lapping, fill the screening room.
The goal, said the hospital's Mammography Supervisor Sylvia Coleman, is to make what is normally thought of as an unpleasant experience less stressful.
"Most women are anxious about mammograms," she said. "The whole idea is to take the patient's mind away and put them in a more relaxed and calm state. If we can make the experience more pleasant, we're hoping more women will choose to have mammograms. And that's so important because early detection is key with breast cancer."
The SensorySuite is available at the hospital's Outpatient Imaging Center on 2300 E. 30th St., which is where many women in San Juan County go to have a mammogram. It is also available in the hospital's Radiology Department for women who need follow-up screening after a routine mammogram indicates a possible issue.
At the same time the hospital acquired the SensorySuite system, it also switched to digital technology for mammograms, which allows technicians and doctors to more accurately detect suspicious breast tissue.
"We are finding smaller lesions using the digital system," Coleman said.
Catching suspicious breast tissue when it's smaller and less-developed means higher survival rates for patients, and often involves less radical treatment.
Coleman says that getting women to relax during a mammogram helps them realize that, while uncomfortable, undergoing a mammogram is not actually painful.
"The nature of the breast is that it, itself, is a lump, and to see through the lump, we have to get the tissue spread out on an even plain," she said.
Coleman points out that while yearly mammograms are important, 10 percent of breast cancers will not show up on the mammogram, so it's important to also have regular breast exams.
Dr. Kristy Wolske is a hospital radiologist who interprets the digital images from the mammograms and consults with patients when an abnormality is discovered. Wolske is passionate about educating women about the importance of having yearly mammograms from age 40 and beyond.
"There's been some talk about changing that age to 50, but I think that is a money-saving move and is definitely not our recommendation," she said. "All the research supports women starting yearly mammograms at age 40 because it's very common for women in their 40s to develop breast cancer. I even see breast cancer occurring in women in their 30s and younger, and because cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive, it's very important to catch the cancer early."
Wolske said there are several reasons women put off having a mammogram. One is fear of exposure to radiation during the mammogram X-ray, but Wolske said that this exposure is extremely low-dose and harmless.
Another reason is fear that something abnormal will be detected during the mammogram.
"Women who are going to get breast cancer will get it regardless. Putting off the mammogram won't make the cancer go away," she said. "We know mammograms save lives, it's just a matter of breaking down the barriers that keep women from getting them."
Another common reason women put off getting a mammogram is financial. While most insurance plans cover yearly well-woman exams that include mammograms, many women are uninsured or underinsured. Help for these women is available.
San Juan Regional Medical Center's Cancer Navigator Fran Robinson said the Cathy Lincoln Memorial Fund offers financial help with detecting and treating women's cancers, and the New Mexico Breast and Cervical Program also offers help to uninsured or underinsured women ages 30 and older.
Robinson said the hospital's Cancer Center also offers a class on how to do an effective breast self-exam.
"We teach 'MammaCare,' which is the only research-based self-exam method," she said. "Women who go through the training feel very confident with doing self-exams, and we offer it free of charge," she said.
Robinson said the hospital also hosts a breast cancer support group that meets from noon to 1 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the Cancer Center.
"The support group is a chance for women to talk about all kinds of issues related to a cancer diagnosis. A lot of women find it helpful to talk to other women who have gone through cancer," Robinson said.
Like Wolske and Coleman, Robinson says the one message she hopes women walk away with is the importance of regular breast cancer screenings.
"Early detection is the most important message – it's critical," she said.