Health Department program helps local women fight breast and cervical cancer at little to no cost

Action News Jax at 5:30 p.m.

U.S.A. — Our mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces and friends are battling cancer. Some are suffering in silence or don’t know where to turn.

As of 2018, Florida ranked second in the country for new breast cancer cases and third for new cervical cancer cases.

There’s a resource that’s been in our community for decades, helping women with breast or cervical cancer face their fight, with little or no cost.

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Last year, Leslie Vonada feared the worst after finding a lump in her breast during a self-exam.

Vonada said, “I was scared to death with fear; it stopped me from doing anything for a little while," she said, "because first of all I did not have insurance and I didn’t know where to go.”

Months went by before a discovery at her restaurant job led to a life-changing decision.

“I found a flyer at the end of the day when I was cleaning up that had the Early Detection Breast and Cervical Cancer Health Department number on it and I called them,” Vonada said.

The Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program is a national program that’s been available in Florida since the early ’90s.

Dr. Pauline Rolle, director of Duval County’s Health Department, says many women still don’t know about it or the resources it offers -- like free mammograms and PAP tests.

“We can walk them through the entire process," Rolle said, "We are one of the few programs that takes you from screening to treatment all at no cost to women or very low cost.'”

Rolle said the department has tried to get the word out over the years, including an ad featuring first ladies from the local faith community.

UF Health breast surgeon Dr. Bharti Jasra said many low-income and uninsured women in our community are suffering in silence.

“Most of these women don’t do it out of choice,” said Jasra.

The doctor said she sees those effects first-hand in the ER. Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes asked, “How frequently would you say you are getting calls to the emergency room for women who have full-blown breast cancer?”

Jasra said, “I would say at least one or twice a month, at least I would say, a lot,” she answered.

Jasra pushes women to reach out to the Early Detection Program, where those who qualify, can get most services and treatments paid for so they can focus on their fight.

To be eligible for the Florida Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program:

  • you must be a Florida resident
  • between 50-64 years old or 40-49 years old with symptoms or a family history of breast cancer
  • have no health insurance
  • a household income at or below 200 percent of the poverty level

Vonada’s phone call led to her screening and diagnosis of Stage 2, triple negative breast cancer. “We did four rounds of chemotherapy 21 days apart and then I had a lumpectomy.” Vonada said, Then I recovered from surgery and I did 30 treatments of proton therapy.”

Vonada said she paid nothing out of pocket and as of last month, she is cancer-free. Vonada said she is excited to make plans for her future and making new memories, including an upcoming a trip with her family to her great-grandmother’s home in southeastern Kentucky.

Rolle said there’s hope out there for everyone.

“Educate yourself.” she said, “Because no woman should die of breast or cervical cancer needlessly.”

According to a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Duval County, during the past 10 years the Early Detection Program has provided:

  • about 28,000 services
  • about 10,000 initial mammograms
  • 275 women were diagnosed with breast cancer or pre-cancerous conditions, and 186 of them were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer
  • 21 women were diagnosed with pre-cancer or invasive cervical cancer

Rolle said even if you don’t qualify for the Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, the health department can connect you with other resources.

You can learn more about the Early Detection Program here. You can also call 904-253-1610.