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Cancer not patients' only burden in tough economic times

In this photo from last spring, Cathy Gajdos, of Monroeville (wearing glasses) embraces Dawn Reinhart, as they and other women who have survived breast cancer celebrate during the Survivor Tribute of the 20th Annual Komen Race for the Cure at Schenley Park, Sunday, May 13, 2012. File photo

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By Adam Smeltz
Friday, May 10, 2013, 10:21 p.m.

Breast-cancer survivors preparing for the annual Race for the Cure on Sunday have plenty to celebrate. Survival rates are rising, new drugs promise longer lives and prevention has become a social buzz.

But for a growing number of women, the rocky economy has made a difficult fight tougher, social workers say.

They say demand for breast-cancer support groups and assistance agencies across Western Pennsylvania has surged the past few years, driven in part by uninsured and underinsured patients seeking help.

“They lose their job; they lose their insurance,” said Dolores Magro, director of patient advocacy for the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition. She said she took cold calls from 280 patients seeking help in 2012, up from 75 in 2010. Many were newly diagnosed and struggling with insurance or other financial worries.

Statistics in Pittsburgh tell a similar story. The nonprofit Gilda's Club Western Pennsylvania in the Strip District nearly doubled membership last year in its free breast-cancer support group, which had 31 patients by December. Meanwhile, the Bloomfield-based Cancer Caring Center runs nine breast-cancer support groups in and around the city, up from five a couple years ago. All are free.

“I don't know where I would be without going there to vent,” said Samantha Conley, 26, of Mt. Washington, who was diagnosed at age 23. “It just brings you back to reality.”

Leaders at the Cancer Caring Center pointed to several factors that influence the support-group boom, including upticks in younger patients and wider social acceptance of support groups.

Even for women who have insurance, patients said, the groups and agencies that organize them have gained popularity as pillars of financial and emotional guidance. Breast-cancer survivor Naomi Howard, 56, of Hampton and her husband paid about $20,000 for medical care last year despite being insured. They had retired early but have since picked up part-time work.

“Nobody walks entirely in your shoes, but often the journey is very, very similar,” Howard said of support-group friends who “understand the insanity” of breast cancer. She's among about 30,000 people expected this weekend for the 21st Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure.

The fundraising walk and 5K run will begin about 8:30 a.m. in Schenley Park, helping the Komen organization to finance patient assistance and related causes.

“There are options available for all women,” from public assistance to charity care, said Crystal Costanza Ross, director of the Allegheny Cancer Center at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.

At the Breast Cancer Coalition, Magro said she worries most about women who don't seek help, unaware of the assistance available. She said the coalition alerts many to the Medicaid-funded Pennsylvania Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Program, which provides help to those who qualify.

Participants in a related state screening program for low-income women numbered more than 11,400 in 2011-12, up from 10,691 in 2009-10. Participation eclipsed 12,000 in 2008-09, around the height of the recession.

UPMC noticed the trend in its Magee-Women's Cancer Program, where patient “navigators” logged about 1,100 interactions with women last year about financial assistance and insurance concerns. That figure is on pace to surpass 1,200 this year as recently laid-off workers and those in between jobs seek help, said program administrator Judy Herstine.

“It's not just insurance issues. It's having the financial wherewithal to do a lot of other things — transportation, having money to buy medication,” she said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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