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Breast cancer survivors take a group photo during the 18th annual Susan G. Komen South Central Wisconsin Race for the Cure on Willow Island at Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., Saturday, May 30, 2015. Amber Arnold -- State Journal

A cancer diagnosis brings countless questions, a roller coaster of emotions and tough decisions. While some of these tough decisions are understandable and unavoidable, some are not. Nobody should have to decide between putting food on the table for their family or paying for their potentially life-saving treatment, for example. Yet this very choice is being made in a number of homes across our state and it is unacceptable.

I know this struggle firsthand. I watched my mother be turned away from chemotherapy because she couldn’t afford the necessary treatment for her breast cancer. My aunt, too, struggled financially and had to pick and choose treatments for her breast cancer. And after my own breast cancer diagnosis, I had to make tough decisions and forego expensive scans so that I could afford my bills.

The costs of cancer care can begin at the earliest of stages, including with routine screening, and balloon from there — particularly for those women and men who still lack health insurance or are underinsured. We have come a long way in improving care and providing people with access to affordable screening services thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which requires health insurance plans to now cover recommended preventative services — such as mammograms — without any patient cost-sharing. But women who can’t afford even the most basic health insurance must pay about $158 out-of-pocket for their regular screening mammogram.

That’s why Susan G. Komen Wisconsin has worked hard to build partnerships with local health systems to help make routine breast care more accessible and affordable for women without insurance or who are underinsured. Through our Komen Wisconsin Breast Care Assistance Fund, qualifying individuals can receive screenings and diagnostic testing at no cost to them. If additional testing or more advanced screening is needed to determine whether an abnormality is cancerous, we will also cover those costs.

Breast cancer treatment alone is expensive. Yet we sometimes forget when thinking about the costs of cancer that life doesn’t stop during treatment. There are still other bills to pay, some that may increase because the person is going through cancer treatment. Take the costs of transportation, for example. Some patients must travel across the state for their treatment, which may also require temporary housing. Even patients who live closer to their care often must drive to and from treatment every day, which can be particularly costly.

For patients who are burdened by transportation costs, Komen Wisconsin helps by providing pre-loaded gas cards or by contributing to their car payments if they cannot afford them while going through treatment. Additionally, we often help patients cover a variety of other costs, including rent, child care, lymphedema supplies, insurance copays and more.

An estimated 4,700 people in Wisconsin are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The need for financial assistance is usually greater than the amount of money we can give. That’s why our fundraising efforts and participation in the annual More Than Pink walks are so important.

Ultimately, we want to eliminate financial barriers so that everyone can get the care they need. We’ve committed more than $500,000 in financial assistance this year alone for breast health services and to help breast cancer patients make ends meet. The need for such financial assistance has been so great in recent years that we have dedicated all local funding to our Breast Cancer Assistance Fund.

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Last month, we held our first More Than Pink walk, an event that raises essential dollars for our fund. We have two more walks this year and are seeking to raise $990,374 to ensure we can continue to provide financial assistance to uninsured and underinsured Wisconsinites. Additionally, sponsors such as Kohl’s also make generous contributions to Komen Wisconsin each year so that we can continue to grow our fund and help more people.

As we fight to end breast cancer, we must be vigilant about getting annual breast screenings so that we can detect cancers early and get people into treatment as soon as possible before it begins to spread. For the women who need help paying for these services, Komen Wisconsin is here to help. We’ll continue helping you along the way so that saving your life doesn’t become a hard choice you have to make at the expense of your family. If you or a loved one needs assistance from Komen Wisconsin, please visit www.komenwisconsin.org.

Nikki Panico, a breast cancer survivor, is the executive director of Susan G. Komen Wisconsin.

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