Mobile Mammograms Bridge Screening Gap

Oct 21, 2013

The way a woman chooses to treat breast cancer is sometimes different based on where she lives. That’s according to a study by researchers at the Mayo clinic, who released the latest findings this summer. Women who live far away from health care facilities take more drastic measures to eliminate cancer and they're less likely to complete follow-up treatments. Health organizations recognize the rural-urban divide in treatment and prevention. Those health professionals are developing ways to reach out to women, despite the distance.

One of Brandon, South Dakota’s busy streets runs right in front of Avera McGreevy clinic. But the noise of passing traffic gets buried beneath the a droning semi-truck engine running in the parking lot.  From the outside, it looks like a big rectangular crate wrapped in some advertising, but one step inside reveals this is no ordinary tractor, trailer.

Up the metal, collapsible stairs is a small office, outfitted like a waiting room at a clinic. Neutral wallpaper, cushy seats, dark wood cabinets. Jerry Zins sits behind a desk. He sports a pink polo with a pink pen attached to his lanyard.

"I wear pink an awful lot with this job," Zins says. "If you told me 10 years ago that I would have been wearing pink everyday, I guess I would have been surprised, but don’t mind it at all."

Zins willingly dons shirts in blush shades to remind himself and patients who climb into the trailer …that people are fighting breast cancer. Zins schedules and greets women who get mammograms.

The self-contained mammography area on the other end of the truck has the same technology as permanent offices throughout the health system. A bulky machine takes up a large part of the space.

"And then I have a lead wall/window that I step behind, and I can take their picture and be protected," technician Michelle Anderson says. 

Anderson says she helps patients who can walk or who use wheelchairs get their annual mammogram. She reviews a woman’s health history before capturing the images.

"If this is their first mammogram, I will explain what I’m gonna do," Anderson says. "I’ll show them the machine, and just tell them what’s important for them, how to hold still and tolerate as much compression as they can."

Less than 10 minutes later, patients are done. Anderson sends the four images taken from each patient to their doctors, and the women expect their results in the mail a few weeks after they step off the truck.  

The mobile mammogram visits different communities on different days. Jill Schultz says that helps bridge a gap in screenings that happens because women sometimes live far away from clinics. It even parks outside of a woman’s workplace.

"We say, if there’s eight women that are willing to have their mammogram on that day, we’ll come out to the business place," Schultz says. "And it’s amazing how many women come out. It’s just simple for them; they don’t have to go anywhere. They just step out on their coffee break and get their mammogram done, so it can’t be much easier than that."

Schultz is the director of the Prairie Center in Sioux Falls; that’s Avera’s core for cancer-related care. She is surrounded by the breast cancer awareness color. Pink pens, pink coffee cups, pink wallhangings – even a purse hanging on a nearby hook is a rosy tone.

She says some people get frustrated with the pink push, but she says a person doesn’t have to be a survivor to empathize with women battling breast cancer.

"I myself have not had breast cancer, but breast cancer’s certainly touched family and friends and neighbors; it is everywhere," Schultz says. "And we are fortunate to live in this time where technology does help us, and we are surviving breast cancer when it’s found early, and it doesn’t have to be that scary disease that it once was."

Schultz says she’s grateful communities now embrace the fight instead of making breast cancer a taboo.

Back on at the mobile mammography unit, longtime driver and registrar Jerry Zins welcomes patient after patient into the office. Zins says he get his fair share of jabs, because he works in a woman-focused field. He has worked the mobile unit for 15 years, so he says the women who come every year for their screenings are comfortable with him.

"Occasionally I’ll get a first-timer who comes through here, and there’ll be a little bit of a surprise on their face when they see me, but it doesn’t last long," Zins says. "We take care of their fears about that right off the bat."

Zins says the truck he drives provides mammograms for women who might otherwise skip the screenings simply because of logistics. The first step to catching and treating breast cancer right on the semi-truck, and it saves lives. That’s why Zins pulls on his pink polo every day.

Both Avera Queen of Peace in Mitchell and Avera Sacred Heart in Yankton also offer mobile mammograms.