Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Another holiday is approaching, and the same old question is echoing across the country: What to buy for Mother's Day? The "usual" gifts, such as flowers, Sunday brunch and a card, are nice. Yet these gifts are common. Let me suggest another option: the gift of a healthier life.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States. What most people don't realize is the risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. By age 40, chances are 1 in 217; by age 80, chances are 1 in 10. Research shows that older women do not recognize that the greatest risk factor for breast cancer is advancing age -- greater than family history. These are scary facts.

The good news is that if detected early, breast cancer mortality can be reduced by 20 percent to 40 percent for women age 50 and older. This means that even if your mother or grandmother gets breast cancer and the cancer is detected early, she is likely to survive it.

Here's the gift idea: Help your mother or grandmother get a mammogram! Medicare covers annual mammograms for women who are enrolled. All that is owed by the patient is the 20 percent co-payment. That's where you come in. Put an "IOU" in her Mother's Day card, or even take her to the doctor's office or local mammography center and pay the balance -- usually between $15 and $25. The message you'll be giving to your mothers and grandmothers is that you love them, and want them to stay healthy in their golden years -- and having an annual mammogram is a good way to accomplish this.

For more information, your readers can call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). -- NANCY-ANN DEPARLE, HEALTH CARE FINANCING ADMINISTRATION

DEAR NANCY-ANN: I agree that an annual mammogram is a wise precaution. I'm sure some readers will find your suggestion intriguing, and I'm also sure your letter will create some healthy discussion on a subject that needs to be talked about.

However, this may not be the ideal gift for every mother. After polling my staff, they unanimously agreed that if a mammogram co-payment is offered, it be in addition to -- not instead of -- the traditional Mother's Day gifts.

DEAR ABBY: I am a 70-year-old man. I have been widowed going on five years. Lately I've been seeing a nice woman who was recently widowed.

We are considering living together without marriage. That seems to be common here in Florida. It appears to eliminate some of the problems of getting remarried at our age.

My question is, how do you introduce your live-in companion to friends? Obviously I can't say she's my wife, and I think it would be disrespectful to call her my "live-in." -- CONFUSED IN FLORIDA

DEAR CONFUSED: A number of acceptable terms for the person with whom you have chosen to live come to mind: my best friend, my partner, my sweetheart, my girlfriend, or simply, my friend. Or, you can say, "Hello, John. This is Jane," and leave it at that.

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600