It’s one of those perfect autumn days in Northern Michigan. Sun sparkling on Lake Superior. Leaves flashing red and yellow.
Overlooking it all, parked in a lot at the Bay Mills Indian Community on the Upper Peninsula, is the Spectrum Health mobile mammography unit.
This 45-foot bus is designed to help overcome one of the biggest obstacles in the fight against breast cancer: lack of access to screenings.
On this single trip to Bay Mills, Spectrum Health Betty Ford Breast Care Services team members screened 74 women—several for the first time and some who hadn’t had a mammogram in 10 years or more.
Among those screened: Betty Jahnke, MSN, RN, a supervisor case manager in the Bay Mills Indian Community.
Jahnke, 45, has undergone screenings regularly. While working to coordinate the mammography mobile unit in her community, she also took a moment to complete her own screening.
“My grandmother passed away from breast cancer and one of my mother’s sisters was diagnosed, both in their early 40s,” she said. “I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 40 because I know how important it is to catch it early.”
On-site screenings make a tremendous difference in this rural community.
“People love having imaging done right here,” Jahnke said. “It’s so convenient. Without it, people have to take a half a day off and make the drive into Sault Ste Marie.”
For much of their medical care, such as colonoscopies, Bay Mills residents have to drive “below the bridge.”
The mobile unit has been rolling for 25 years, said Rhonda Kiel, a mammography specialist at Spectrum Health who coordinates the service.
The service provides outreach to rural and underserved communities, including local clinics and churches.
“Women do love the convenience,” Kiel said. “This helps them stay local.”
With one machine and one tech, the unit helps visitors get in and out with great efficiency.
“On an average day we can do 20 screenings,” Kiel said. “And we go out five days a week.”
Mammography, an image of the breast, is the best way to spot breast cancer in most women.
The American Cancer Society says women age 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms, if they wish to do so. Women ages 45 to 54 should undergo screening annually, while those age 55 and beyond can continue with annual screening or switch to every other year.
Screening reduces the number of cancer deaths by 20% and early detection can increase treatment options, including less extensive surgery. Sometimes, it can even mean there’s an option to skip chemotherapy.
While all that should make the decision to have a mammogram a slam dunk, only 64% of women older than 40 undergo screening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s sharply lower for those who are uninsured (30%) or Native Americans (52%).
“Many of these women are uninsured or underserved,” Spectrum Health mammography tech Stephanie Strothheide said. “Many have transportation barriers. So this is a great opportunity for them to get screened.
“Some told us they wouldn’t have been able to get a mammogram otherwise.”
It’s also a nice opportunity for Strothheide. She performs thousands of mammograms every year at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, but she enjoys riding with the mammography mobile unit when it makes its weeklong foray up north.
She has made this particular trip with the mobile unit two years in a row.
“It’s nice to get away and a change of pace,” she said. “And we had beautiful weather—plenty of sun and 70 degree days, so we could take a few walks by the lake.”
Among the communities they visit includes the Hannahville Indian Community, near Escanaba, where the unit also recently screened women.
Even the road-tripping is fun. She and the driver listen to country music along the way.
Once the bus returns from its mission, the screening images are uploaded so radiologists can review them for any abnormalities.
“If there are problems, we’re able to refer them for additional imaging to local diagnostic imaging facilities,” Strothheide said.
It’s too soon to say if this year’s road trip helped uncover breast cancer, but Jahnke said it’s great to know the resources have been provided.
“Early detection and treatment can make all the difference,” she said.