(The Root) — Last week Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, along with actress and activist Gabrielle Union, introduced the organization's expanded breast-health initiative. Thanks to their controversial fallout with Susan G. Komen for the Cure in February, when their longtime financial supporter succumbed to political pressure and briefly discontinued funds for breast-health programs, Planned Parenthood received $3 million in donations in a little more than 72 hours. These donations, from more than 77,000 people, have opened the gates for the organization's increased efforts in the fight against breast cancer.
Planned Parenthood doctors are currently equipped to administer breast exams, but moving forward, if a patient's screening is abnormal, women will receive not only a referral to a local mammogram, ultrasound or biopsy provider but also financial support if they don't have health insurance. In addition, the organization is enlarging its breast-health education efforts — including the importance of regular exams and how to recognize abnormalities — specifically toward Latinas and women in general under 40 years old.
According to reports published by the journal the Oncologist and the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women under 40 and in Latinas. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, reports the National Cancer Institute, and unlike women with higher incomes, those in low-income environments are more likely to learn of their diagnosis at a later, more detrimental stage of the disease, says a National Longitudinal Mortality study.
But not everyone sees the effectiveness of mammography. Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz, professors at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said recently that Susan G. Komen has long overstated the importance of mammograms in staving off breast cancer. The pair asserts that early detection does little to decrease the death toll exacted by breast cancer; in fact, the practice may cause more fear than it does good.
"The most important harm is overdiagnosis — screening can find cancers that were never destined to cause harm because it grows so slowly or can go away on its own," Woloshin told CNN. "It would never have harmed you, you would never have known about it and you would have lived your whole life and died from something else. These people get treated. They get radiation, chemotherapy, surgery — and it's all unnecessary. "
Planned Parenthood is undeterred.
"It's well-known that there are limits to mammography, but it's still the best assessment tool we have at our disposal in terms of early detection, screenings and frontline imaging," Shawn Rhea, Planned Parenthood's director of health media, told The Root.
For Gabrielle Union, this fight against a cancer that attacks approximately 14,000 Latinas each year is personal.
"My girlfriend Kristen was diagnosed at 32 with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer," Union told The Root. "She fought it for five years, and in our last conversation she said, 'Fear is a motherf—ker; it can kill you. It killed me.' She asked me to continue her fight so her death wouldn't be in vain."
Union says her friend, an Afro-Latina, ignored pains in her chest and back for months until she couldn't sleep. Once she was finally examined by a physician, the cancer had advanced too far. She died in 2010.
Along with Latinas, African Americans have the highest incidence rates among women diagnosed under 40. These statistics are further proof that women's health and education must continue to be a top priority, or else statements like those made by Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri about abortion and rape earlier this month might derail efforts made by nonprofits like Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood, as well as activists like Union.
"I saw [Akin's interview] and I recoiled; he was so raw in his ignorance that I was at a loss, and then I got pissed," Union said. "It's incredibly irresponsible to make inflammatory and erroneous statements that stop women from getting the care that they need. The idea that Planned Parenthood is just for kids or it's an abortion factory are painful myths that stand in the way of many women getting the health care they need."
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief of The Root.