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Adirondack Health has improved breast health program

From left, Dr. Emily Szczech, breast health navigator Margaret Sorensen, X-ray technologist Karen Marshall and director of medical imaging Jim Sabin stand in front of the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

SARANAC LAKE — October is breast cancer awareness month. If you need a reason to make an appointment with the folks at Adirondack Medical Center’s breast health program, that’s a good one. But, as the doctors and staff there are quick to point out, you shouldn’t really need a reason, and breast cancer doesn’t only happen in October.

They’re also reminding folks that even in a pandemic, annual breast cancer screening is important — and safe.

Regardless of motivation, the newly expanded and updated breast health program at the Saranac Lake hospital is a valuable resource for women in the Adirondacks.

In April 2019, the center added 3D mammography service, in October it started doing mammogram-guided breast biopsies, and this June it added a new ultrasound machine and more state-of-the-art equipment, and started doing breast MRIs. It also hired veteran nurse practitioner Margaret Sorensen as a breast health navigator who helps women through entire processes. Genetic testing has been available for about three years.

All this has helped Adirondack Health, the network that includes the hospital, serve area women who before would have had to go to Plattsburgh, Albany, Vermont or a combination of other locations — adding both logistical issues and more stress to an already stressful situation.

Jim Sabin, director of medical imaging, estimates that the program now averages between 12 and 18 mammograms and five ultrasounds per day, and maybe three MRIs per month. And they have the capacity to do many more.

Last year the Adirondack Health Foundation fundraised specifically for women’s health, and a large component of that was the breast health program. The goal of $400,000 was not only met, but exceeded. “You’re probably looking at close to three-quarters of a million dollars,” said Sabin, when you add up all the fancy equipment.

“When I — or another provider — identify a patient, they can get genetic testing here,” said Dr. Emily Szczech, the surgeon who oversees much of the program. “Before they had to go about three hours away.”

“If your primary care physician is in here, it’s easy to get your imaging done, it’s easy to talk to a surgeon, to talk to an oncologist, to have them order and discuss your mammograms, as opposed to having them done in Burlington, Vermont, and now you have to get all those records,” said Szczech. “It’s like the hub. You have people, and you didn’t have to drive three hours in the snow to get that test done or that biopsy performed.”

“It’s kind of a concierge service,” said Sorensen of her job as the breast health navigator. “We get them through,” she said about the process from that first problematic mammogram, and extending to more appointments, ultrasounds, biopsies, possible lumpectomies or mastectomies, even prosthetics and support bras, advocacy and future preventative issues.

The Tri-Lakes area has a high proportion of elderly residents, as well as patients with genetic issues, so the hope is that the convenience and availability of the breast program will encourage not only women in general but at-risk women to come in for regular screenings and check-ups.

“I hope that means we’re going to be screening people better and catching things earlier and taking care of them, as opposed to waiting,” said Szczech. “I’m really proud of what this hospital has been able to put forward in such a small community. We have cancer support yoga and all these things. I feel that people need to know they’re here.”

Mammograms are recommended annually for women starting at the age of 40. Women with a family history of breast cancer or other risks should get them earlier.

According to the state Department of Health, in New York, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women.

In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law to help more women get breast cancer screening and diagnostic imaging, if needed. The law keeps most health insurance plans in New York from requiring out-of-pocket costs for women who get these services.

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