The traveling breast cancer screening unit that serves Southeast Alaska won’t be coming this year, due to COVID-19. That means some living in small communities won’t get their annual breast exams.
Odette Butler, chief executive of the Breast Cancer Detection Center of Alaska, said deciding to suspend service to Southeast for the rest of the year was hard. Last year she had over 600 screenings scheduled in the region.
“We looked at every possibility, every possible way we could try to make this happen,” she said.
The point of the center’s mobile mammography truck is to give health care access to rural women who are unlikely to travel for preventative care. But Butler says there are too many risks associated with travel during the pandemic. Her workers could be exposed during travel, especially when they have to take planes and barges rather than sticking to the road system. Then there’s the risk they may expose people in remote communities.
“With there not being a vaccine, or treatments really iffy, and with the population of women — if you look at our demographic, age 35, if they have previous history, or 40 and above — that’s a demographic that’s already at risk for COVID. So it was a hard decision. We hated making it, but we feel like it was the right thing to do,” Butler said.
The traveling mammography unit was scheduled to visit 10 communities in the region this year, including several that didn’t get service last year after the mobile unit’s generator failed. That means some women in Haines, Skagway, Hoonah and Metlakatla will go at least two years without a local option for breast cancer screening.
“Definitely, if there’s a woman out there who has a lump or issues in that way. Of course, they should make sure that they get that looked at,” said Butler. “Because I’d hate to see that go for two years.”
Health care professionals are urging women to get checked elsewhere if they can.
“We certainly recommend that people don’t put off their screening procedures,” said Pam Sloper, case manager for the breast and cervical health program at Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Haines Health Clinic. She says women who need screening and are comfortable with the risks of travel during the pandemic should consider it.
“There may be women out there who are past due, and certainly for them or people who are high risk — you know, meaning if you have first-degree relatives, which is a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer — or you had some previous problems. Those kind of people should certainly think about traveling to have it done,” she said.
Sloper said SEARHC has travel assistance funds available for women who have financial need and for enrolled tribal beneficiaries.
There are a range of recommendations for breast cancer screenings, depending on each patient’s medical and family history. The Mayo Clinic recommends all women over 40 be screened annually.