By Kathy Engle, Vitals contributor
Lucky number seven has been anything but for Ramona Villanueva. Since age 50, Villanueva has been diligent about getting an annual mammogram. Seven years into the habit she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Despite the unwanted news, Villanueva says she feels fortunate. As a Filipino-American with a family history of breast cancer, dense breast tissue and no health insurance, she believes it’s a miracle that her cancer was caught. And she’s not wrong. Studies estimate that uninsured Filipinas have one of the lowest utilization rates for screening mammography in the United States and often have breast cancer diagnosed at a later stage than White women.
“They detected an architectural distortion in my mammogram, called me back for a biopsy and confirmed cancer,” says Villanueva. “Without the screening program, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
The screening program Villanueva refers to is a community mammogram program that provides no-cost mammograms to uninsured women in San Mateo County. In existence for over 20 years, the program is a collaboration between Sutter Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council, the Peninsula Health Care District and Stanford Healthcare.
Under the program, Sutter Mills-Peninsula Women’s Center, located at 100 S San Mateo Dr. in San Mateo, provides no-cost screening mammograms for uninsured women in the county, paid for in-part by generous community donors.
“With Ramona’s family history and dense breast tissue, a delay in screening due to a lack of health insurance could have led to a later cancer diagnosis, which is often associated with very poor outcomes,” says Dr. Dorra Sellami, medical director breast imaging at Sutter Mills-Peninsula Medical Center. “That is why the community mammogram program and our partnerships with safety-net organizations are so important.” Dr. Sellami estimates the Women’s Center conducts 250 to 300 screenings each year as part of the community mammogram program.
The medical milestones in Villanueva’s cancer journey, from diagnosis to surgery to chemotherapy, were routine for the type and stage of cancer she had. What does stand out is the extra coordination that was needed because Villanueva is uninsured. “All the points in the process needed to be seamlessly connected to make sure Ramona didn’t fall through the cracks,” says Dr. Sellami.
Dr. Sellami read Villanueva’s initial mammogram and called her back for additional images. A full diagnostic workup was then done by Dr. Diana Baker, a biopsy was performed by Dr. Rahi Kumar and a breast MRI was taken. All of these steps were performed at the Sutter Mills-Peninsula Women’s Center and all were provided at no-cost thanks to how comprehensive the community mammogram program is.
Villanueva was then referred to San Mateo Medical Center, the county public hospital, where she had surgery to remove the cancer before she returned to the Mills cancer center for five sessions of radiation overseen by Dr. Al Taira. Throughout her illness Villanueva also received primary care through the non-profit Samaritan House free clinic in San Mateo, which is also a recipient of community benefit investments by Sutter Health Mills-Peninsula Medical Center.
Today, Villanueva is cancer free and feeling healthy.
“Sutter has helped me a lot during my cancer journey and I truly thank the community donors who have followed their heart and also given to help people like me,” Villanueva recently said. “Thank God this program exists.”
The Mills-Peninsula Hospital Foundation’s Women’s Health Luncheon & Lecture raises money for the purchase of cutting-edge breast cancer screening technology and defrays some of the cost of scans and other services provided to uninsured women who take part in the community mammogram program. Learn more about donating to these important causes here.