In a parking lot of cracked pavement at an east-end community centre, a shiny, new coach bus rolls in.

It isn't a bus to serve the children who run around the back lawn or make crafts inside the centre in the residential McQuesten neighbourhood. The Greyhound-sized coach bus is a first for Hamilton — a  mobile cancer-screening clinic that will go to where the patients are, instead of asking them to travel to a hospital.

The bus, equpped to screen eligible women for breast and cervical cancer and both men and women for colorectal cancer, is an initiative aimed at improving health care for people who for people in poverty and in immigrant communities who can't — or won't — go to hospitals or clinics.

Prevention priority

"This is about community," said Michael Sherar, president of Cancer Care Ontario. "Prevention of cancer before it starts and detection early is a central priority for us."

The Screen for Life mobile cancer screening facility is a Hamilton Health Sciences initiative for use in the Hamilton and Niagara areas. Step onto the bus and into the registration lounge with couches for seating. A little further down a narrow hallway and find two doors, one is a change room, the other is the cervical and colorectal screening room. At the back of the bus is a mammogram machine. The equipment, and even the mint green colours inside the bus,are similar to what you'd see in a hospital.


The mammogram equipment inside the Screen for Life bus. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

"The service on the bus is equal to the services in any of the 18 cancer screening centres in the region," said Patti Ann Allen, the clinical manager of the bus program.

This point is especially important because the bus is meant to reach people in communities who otherwise wouldn't make it to one of those 19 centres. In the first year, the bus will service the McQuesten, South Sherman and Riverdale neighbourhoods, Allen said, and women and men aged 50 and over are eligible for screening.

Neighbourhoods like McQuesten, where the bus rolled in today, need this type of support. All three don't have a cancer screening centre within walking distance. They also are home to individuals where cultural or social issues might be a barrier to seeking out prevention treatment.

Reaching out

"What I know from our maps, [the neighbourhoods] are struggling in terms or screening and in terms of income," said Michael Mills, a family doctor and primary care leader with the local Hamilton integrated health network. "There are lots of people who don't have family doctors."

Mills said there are a few cultural groups who only make visits to the doctor when someone is close to death.

"We need to encourage people to come when you're alive," he said.

Allen said the staff on the bus will "have the resources" to get people to the bus who need screening and to assist with language barriers. And Hamilton Health Sciences is working with engaged community groups to help get people appointments starting this week.

The idea of a cancer screening coach is not a new one — for the past 21 years, a similar bus has screened Northern Ontario women for breast cancer. The idea also exists internationally. Mills said he's also seen similar programs in action in New Zealand.

The Screen for Life bus will be the first mobile facility in Ontario that combines screening for three cancers.

Once the first year is complete, Allen said the bus will move into more communities in the Hamilton and Niagara regions.