Story last updated at 10/21/2009 - 3:05 pm
Residents of rural Alaska may find it difficult enough to keep up with their shopping, let alone stay current with their preventative medical care. But for 17 years, the mobile mammogram van has brought breast cancer screening directly to women of Southeast Alaska's rural communities.
The unit is owned by Bartlett and operated in cooperation with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). Nicknamed the "Mammovan," the 29-foot vehicle is equipped with a state-of-the-art mammography machine. In addition to the van's exam room is a changing room and an office. A generator powers the mobile unit wherever it goes.
The Mammovan is on the road for nine to ten weeks each spring, then again in the fall. Traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway System, the van makes its way to Skagway, Haines, Hoonah, Yakutat, Klawock, Craig, Metlakatla, Angoon and Kake. By Halloween, the van makes its way back to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, where it hibernates for the winter.
Gail Spensley has worked as the mobile mammogram van's technician for the last seven years. She finds driving the truck an exciting experience in itself, especially the process of boarding the ferry. But her most valuable perks come in the form of hugs and thanks from her patients.
"I find it to be a really rewarding job," Spensley said. "There are a lot of women who faithfully come to the truck. A lot of people thank me and thank Bartlett for providing this service."
Many of the women Spensley screens for breast cancer would not do so if it weren't for the Mammovan. The alternative for these women would include a flight or ferry ride to a larger town with mammogram services as well as the cost of a hotel and the inconvenience of a night away from home.
"A lot of these women won't leave to go get the care elsewhere," Spensley said. "Cost and convenience play a part. It is an effort to get care out of their communities."
In addition to breast cancer screening, women may concurrently receive cervical and cardiovascular screenings under the SEARHC WISEWOMAN Women's Health Program. Women from ages 18 to 64, regardless of ethnicity, are eligible for care under the program, which offers financial coverage for services to those who meet low-income eligibility requirements.
Susan Suarez, recruitment coordinator for the Women's Health Program, said women substantially benefit from the umbrella of services encompassed by the program. For example, a woman who would have normally only opted to receive a cervical screening could overlook an underlying cardiovascular issue, but the program's all-in-one approach provides a "whole package deal."
"They may have just been getting their mammogram, but now they can do it all together," Suarez said. "I think it's a wonderful thing for women. We're catching things, we're getting the word out and getting more women enrolled in these programs."
The program also provides women with case management and follow-up support in the event that a woman receives a diagnosis requiring subsequent treatment. Suarez said many women are thankful to SEARHC for providing such services in Southeast.
"That's why we are in these kinds of jobs," Suarez said. "When you catch someone in the early stages and are able to help them out, it's great."
Spensley, who performs over 700 mammograms per year, said many women avoid being screened in an attempt to steer clear of potential discomfort.
"Don't believe all the rumors," Spensley said. "Mammograms are emotional. It's a private area and it's difficult for women to make that first step. But the rumors are greatly exaggerated as far as the discomfort goes."
The procedure essentially creates an x-ray of the breast tissue by compression. The black and white image created is then read by a radiologist who determines the diagnosis.
"The exposure itself is very short and the compression comes off immediately," Spensley said.
The Mammovan's images are sent to Bartlett either at the end of the day or first thing the following morning, weather permitting.
"In most communities there are little planes that come in and out of Juneau every day," Spensley said. "It's not like the mail."
Reports are then returned to their respective local clinics within a week.
Spensley has seen the number of women who turn out for mammograms rise in her time manning the Mammovan. She encourages women to take advantage of the service and hopes to see the turnout continue to grow.
"Mammograms save lives," Spensley said.
Suarez urges everyone to encourage their sisters, mothers and friends to receive their yearly mammogram, and to remember that there is a large support network in Southeast for those who receive a positive diagnosis.
"I always like to remind people to get screened," Suarez said. "Your early detection is your best prevention."
Where's the Mammovan?
To learn when the Mammovan is coming to your town or for more information about the Women's Health Program,
call 1-888-388-8782 or visit www.searhc.org/womenshealth/.