How to get a free mammogram

The statistics are sobering. A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes in the U.S. A woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women ages 40 to 59.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 226,870 women and 2,190 men in America will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. A mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast, is the best tool to find breast cancer early, according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization.

Barriers to screening

An annual mammogram can detect cancers before tumors can be felt by hand and can reduce death rates for women over age 40, says Shawn Farley, a spokesperson for the American College of Radiology. As vital as testing is, research shows that cost is a significant barrier. Not everyone is adequately covered by a health insurance plan.

"The need to level the playing field regarding this potentially lifesaving testing is critical. No one wants to lose a loved one simply because they cannot afford a mammogram," says Dr. Sandy Goldberg, founder of A Silver Lining Foundation, which partners with community, advocacy and health care organizations to help make cancer screenings available to those who can't afford them.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was created to improve access to breast cancer screening among the underserved. Since 1990, more than 10 million screening exams have been done for 4 million women, resulting in the detection of more than 50,000 cases of breast cancer and likely saving many lives. However, with recent CDC funding cuts, only one in five eligible women has access to the test, says Mona Shah, associate director of federal relations at the American Cancer Society Action Network.

"Many more lives could be saved with adequate funding for the program," she adds.

According to Goldberg, "the pool of free programs is becoming much smaller, more programs are needed."

Mammograms can show changes in the breast up to two years before a patient or doctor can feel them. They also can prevent the need for extensive treatment for advanced cancers and improve chances of saving the breast. Early detection can mean catching cancer when it is most treatable. Mammography has helped reduce breast cancer mortality in the U.S. by nearly one-third since 1990, according to the American College of Radiology.

Find free or low-cost mammograms

Despite limited access to low-cost medical insurance, mammograms should not be pushed to the bottom of women's must-do lists. The cost of mammograms varies around the country, but can range from $100 to more than $150, not including the fee for the radiologist, says Goldberg.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act makes breast cancer screening and coverage for treatment available and accessible by requiring health plans to cover preventive services and eliminate insurance copays. But what if you're one of the millions of people without health insurance? You still can find help.

Here's where to turn:

  • "Start with community health organizations in your area," says Dr. Carol Lee, chair of the American College of Radiology Breast Imaging Communications Committee. Ask about special programs. Also, hospital social workers may be able to provide guidance.
  • Inquire at nonprofit hospitals. For example, SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., offers free mammograms for women age 40 and older who don't have insurance.
  • Go online to find the National Cancer Information Center (NCIC), or call 1-800-422-6237.
  • The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) provides access to critical breast and cervical cancer screenings for the underserved in the U.S.
  • Go to, the site of the American Cancer Society, or call 1-800-227-2345.
  • The American Breast Cancer Foundation's Key to Life Program provides financial assistance to uninsured and underinsured women and men of all ages for breast cancer screening. The toll-free hotline is 877-539-2543.
  • Search online for a local Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate.

How often should women have mammograms? "Starting at age 40, or if a close relative has been diagnosed, then 10 years earlier than [the relative's] diagnosis," says Goldberg. Wherever you go for a mammogram, look for a Food and Drug Administration certificate and accreditation by the American College of Radiology.

According to Andrew Becker, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, mammograms will detect about 80 percent to 90 percent of breast cancers in women without symptoms. Although there is some disagreement among doctors about how many lives are saved, "nearly all experts agree that mammography saves lives."

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