Wednesday January 9, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- Across Berkshire County hospitals and clinics, the number of patients getting possibly life-saving breast and colonoscopy screenings -- two of the most popular forms of cancer screenings -- has declined from recent highs.

Cancer screenings have become widely adopted in the general population, but there's been an unexplained countywide drop in the number of colonoscopy and mammography tests, according to Berkshire Medical Center spokesman Michael Leary. Locally, the trend seems to follow national statistics since the American Cancer Society recently warned of a decline in the number of cancer screenings nationwide.

The decline could be the result of financial decisions for some people, according to Leary. An American Cancer Society representative said people also could be confused about when they are supposed to get screenings.

Cancer screenings are an invaluable tool for early detection and prevention. In 2009, 40,676 women died in the United States from breast cancer and 51,848 people died from colorectal cancer, according to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Countywide, colon screenings -- recommended for individuals older than 50 -- has dropped from 66 percent in 2008 to 60.3 percent in 2010. The percentage reflects the number of 50-year-olds eligible for a screening, Leary said.

However, Leary said colon screenings, which includes a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy (a less invasive procedure), have doubled since 2000 when the rate was only at 31.6 percent.

In 2010, the breast cancer screening rate among women over 40 was at 77 percent -- a decline from the 90 percent that were screened in 2002.

Paul Hopkins, the spokesman at North Adams Regional Hospital, said in recent years there's been a decline in the number of people receiving preventive skin cancer screenings at an annual event hosted by the hospital.

Every May for Skin Cancer Awareness Month, Hopkins said that North Adams Regional offers skin cancer screenings. In most years, at least one case of skin cancer has been detected during these screenings, according to Hopkins.

Last May, the skin cancer screening attracted nearly 100 people, according to Hopkins, who said in years past 150 or more would participate in a screening.

"We have seen fewer people last couple of years take advantage of that," Hopkins said. North Adams Regional will increase publicity for the event this year.

Leary said that Berkshire Health Systems has a fund available for those who cannot afford copays or deductibles for colonoscopy or mammography screenings. For additional information on the program, individuals are encouraged to call (855) 262-5465.

"We would hate to see financial difficulties keep people from benefits need," Leary said.

Cancer tips

Here are the American Cancer Society's recommendations of screenings for certain cancers. Information: 1-800-227-2345.

Breast cancer: Annual mammograms recommended starting at age 40. Clinical breast exams recommended about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s.

Colorectal cancer: Beginning at 50, men and women should either receive a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or colonoscopy every 10 years.

Cervical cancer: Women between 21 and 29 should have a pap test every three years. Women between 30 and 65 should receive a human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years and pap test every three years.

Note: A woman who has had her uterus removed for reasons not related to cervical cancer who has no history of cervical cancer or serious pre-cancer should not be tested.

Prostate cancer: Starting at 50, men should talk to a doctor about the pros and cons of testing so they can decide if it is an appropriate test for them.