By Cindy Von Quednow, Correspondent , Daily News Los Angeles
At the time Leigh Ann Zeinali was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had just found a new job after being unemployed for two months and didn't have health insurance. Despite her initial shock, the 41-year-old mother who lives in Northridge took it in stride, and with the help of the Valley Breast Care and Women's Health Center — where she had a mammogram and was first diagnosed — she later qualified for Medi-Cal and was able to get the care she needed.
Zeinali said she has no idea what she would have done if the breast center, located at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, had not offered a low-cost cash mammogram for $100.
"Luckily, the Medi-Cal came through and I found out I could be covered through that, it was the best for me at the time," said Zeinali, who has since left the accounting position she had prior to her diagnosis.
Valley Breast Care offers mammograms, ultrasounds to insured, under insured or uninsured women. Surgical consultation, genetic counseling and bone density exams are also available.
Dr. Thomas Lomis, a breast surgeon and medical director of the center, estimates that they have done 6,000 mammograms this year and find two to four new cancer patients a week. Valley Breast Care has an in-house surgeon, radiologist and an appearance counselor to guide women after a cancer diagnosis.
"Here, if a woman who has a problem needs to be biopsied, many times it is the radiologist showing her the X-rays and many times it can happen within a day or two of the original screening," Lomis said. "We think that a lot of the time, (speed) helps mediate some of the anxiety that comes with the diagnosis."
Zeinali found out she had breast cancer exactly 13 days after discovering a lump in her left breast. By the end of August, she said, she had made the decision to remove her breasts and undergo chemotherapy.
"The day the doctor gave me the results and he examined me, one of the things he told me was, I did nothing to cause this. I don't really know what was going on at that moment, but I started really zoning out by then, and thank goodness my friend was there with me to listen for me and even speak for me," Zeinali said.
Dr. Lomis encourages patients to include friends and family members in the process so they can feel comfortable and have someone else take in the information if they can't do so themselves.
"The first meeting when somebody first gets a diagnosis of breast cancer, I go in with the assumption that after they are told they have cancer, they may not comprehend much of the discussion that follows that," Lomis said. "We try to involve family members and say something positive to the patient in the beginning that they can hold on to that gives them hope and helps alleviate their fear."
When Lomis broke the news to Juana Blanco, 63, that she had ductile carcinoma in situ, the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer, he drew a picture on his notebook to explain her diagnosis while her daughter translated. Blanco, a resident of Northridge, appreciated his frankness and trusted his advice to undergo basic surgery and radiation.
"The news doesn't surprise me, many people in my family have had cancer, that's life," said Blanco, who has Medi-Cal. "I think everything has been taken care of very fast, which is good."
Bebe Tamberg, an appearance specialist who has been working with the cancer center for a few months, said she enjoys seeing the relationship that forms between the doctors and patients, and admires the convenience that is offered to patients.
"It's good to treat patients under one roof, rather than have to send them out to find something. I can then coordinate with and speak to the surgeons who are familiar with the case, and if I have any questions I am able to talk to them about the patient," said Tamberg, who helps women cope with the physical changes of breast cancer.
"The warmth and communication with everybody involved is so amazing. It gives me chills because I've seen people suffer from the lack of that."
Lomis estimates that about 80 percent of his patients are insured through Medi-Cal, and the demographic is largely Hispanic, reflecting the diverse Valley location. But the center also caters to women who have regular insurance.
"We would like to be insurance-blind. The more people that come in with insurance, the more people we're able to help with Medi-Cal or maybe no insurance," Lomis said. "We feel that, in order for us to survive we would like to have patients from all areas. We are really proud of the service we provide."
After undergoing surgery and treatment, Zeinali hopes to pick up where she left off before her diagnosis this summer.
"I'll get through this and I'll get back to work, I have a lot of faith," she said.