TAMPA — Last year, Pat Underwood was too tired to get another job and too young for Medicare.
So doctor visits took a back seat — until a friend told the retiree about free breast and cervical screenings at a local clinic.
Underwood, now 62, set an appointment last year for her first mammogram in four years.
Today, she says, the free exam proved crucial in her health.
Examiners found a lump in one of her breasts, and later a Pap smear revealed precancerous cells that she wouldn't have known about otherwise.
"I really wanted to know," Underwood said. "Do I have cancer? Now I want everyone to know about this service."
Free mammograms, like the one Underwood received, have caught at least 13 people in Tampa with cancer out of 300 screened in two years, said Estrella Clement, a nurse who works with Meditech Medical Center clinics, which offer the free services.
Many more have likely been diagnosed in the 15 years since the program has existed at other clinics in Florida.
The problem is that many women don't know about the service, Clement said.
Orlando de la Paz, director of Meditech, said the services are part of an effort to establish a preventive medical network.
"We are always trying to help," said de la Paz. The centers offer community health fairs, targeting specific health risks such as diabetes and providing low-cost services to people who are underinsured and uninsured.
Locally, three Meditech offices — two in Tampa, one in Brandon — offer the free mammograms and Pap smears to women ages 50 to 64. Several grants, including the state's Florida Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, pay the expenses.
The early detection program, established in 1994, is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at $3.9 million annually, and Medicaid at $2.7 million annually.
Underwood, who lives in Carrollwood, had worked as a telemarketer selling magazines before retiring. She was nervous about skipping routine care but hoped to skim through without mammograms till age 66, when she will qualify for Medicare.
"I was suffering in silence, not knowing because it cost too much," she said. "If it doesn't say free, I couldn't go."
At the clinic last year, doctors found a lump in her breast, which turned out to be a cyst, and precancerous cells after a Pap smear.
"A person with precancerous cells has a very good chance that it will come back," de la Paz said. It's important to monitor levels with annual exams, he said
Underwood was treated at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. The treatment was also free through the early detection program.
Aside from the state funding, Clement pulls together grant money and negotiates deals for the program with providers such as Bayview Radiology, which analyzes test results without making a profit. Also, the Tampa chapter of Sisters Network Inc., a national organization for African-American breast cancer survivors, funneled grant money it received to local Meditech centers.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, according to the National Cancer Institute. Early detection, sometimes even before tumors can be felt, increases chances of successful treatment. In 2005, Florida had 2,663 deaths due to breast cancer. The institute recommends mammograms every one to two years for women 40 and older.
As for Underwood, follow up tests this year came back clear.
All told, she suspects the tests would have cost her thousands of dollars — if she had ever taken them in the first place.
She plans to use the free service for a checkup next year. Meanwhile, knowing she is cancer free gives her peace of mind.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.