Catherine Murray learned that she had cancer in an unlikely place — she was on a bus.
She was having money troubles and came to the North End Community Health Centre to see if she could get help with her utilities. She was in the health centre when Carrie Claxton, a technologist with Hamilton Health Sciences, approached her and asked if she’d ever been screened for cancer.
She hadn’t, but she knew she should. She was 54, an age where women require regular screening. And both of her parents died of cancer.
She followed Claxton out to the Screen for Life Coach, an innovative mobile cancer screening unit in a Greyhound-sized bus that is officially one year old this month. The test revealed the worst: she had breast cancer.
'Who knows how long it would have been festering in my body if I hadn’t done this? So I’m very grateful for this bus.' —Catherine Murray
Murray is getting radiation this summer. But she won’t need a mastectomy and hopes to be cancer-free by fall. If the coach didn’t exist, she said, it would have been much, much worse.
“I will do anything to give accolades to this bus,” she said.
“I will stand on top of it and dance if they want me to because I feel like they’ve kind of saved my life in a way.”
So far, Murray is the only life the coach staff know has been saved in the past year. But plenty of others have benefited too. The coach provided 630 cancer-related services in the last year to never and under-screened women. That includes mammograms, pap tests and colonoscopy education.
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The Hamilton-Niagara-Brant Regional Cancer Program rolled out the coach last June as an effort to take cancer to prevention and detection efforts out to where there were needed. Statistics show some Hamilton neighbourhoods have some of the lowest cancer survival rates in the province, particularly in the lower city. Fewer than half of women in the lower city who need regular pap tests are getting them, show Cancer Care Ontario maps. And screening improves survival rates. The bus aims to address those testing gaps.
Coach slid into a pole
The coach is modelled after a Thunder Bay coach that’s been doing mammograms in remote communities since 1992. The Hamilton coach focuses on screening women aged 50 to 74 years old who “may face cultural, social and/or other barriers” in getting screened regularly, the program material says.
The bus has rotated its location around three pilot neighbourhoods — the North Hamilton Community Health Centre, St. Helen Catholic School in McQuesten and the Dominic Agostino Community Centre in Riverdale. Organizers held an official celebratory barbecue there on Thursday, and are moving from north Hamilton to Riverdale this week.
The Hamilton Health Sciences coach will circle back around to all of those neighbourhoods in the next year, said Patti Ann Allen, integrated cancer screening manager for Hamilton, Niagara, Halton and Brant. It also plans to go to a Good Shepherd site and an aboriginal health centre.
The first months saw some growing pains. That first summer, it only saw a handful of screenings because of technical problems with the bus. Then during December’s ice storm, the bus slid and hit a pole and was out of service that month.
But by January, it had picked up again to more than 50 screenings a month. In May, there were 169.
'In and out in 20 minutes'
Sharon Rupp works near the North End Community Centre and got screened at the bus. She had a lump in her breast years ago, she said, and investigating it was “a slow process.”
She came to the community centre to work out at the gym and noticed the sign, and got screened.
“I was in and out in 20 minutes,” she said. “For someone like me, it was an absolute godsend. I’ve told everybody I know. I’ve said ‘You gotta go.’”
Bettianne Hedges moved to Hamilton two years ago and still doesn’t have a family doctor. She was screened at the bus, which revealed “increased density” in her breast.
“It turned out to be nothing, but it was that absolute feeling of ‘I’m OK. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.’”
Tumour the size of a peach
For Murray, the purpose has been deeper. She was screened in the middle of June and found malignant tumour the size of a peach in her right breast.
Murray had a feeling something wasn’t right with her breast, she said. But she was too afraid of what she’d find to look into it.
“Who knows how long it would have been festering in my body if I hadn’t done this,” she said. “So I’m very grateful for this bus.”
Dr. Meghan Davis is the medical lead for the coach, reading results on the bus.
“Most people get screened at their family doctor and that works fantastic,” she said. “But for a variety of reasons, there are barriers for that for some people.”
'There's a big bus. Come on over.'
The coach staff has helped people find family doctors. In one case, the staff even did CPR on a man who collapsed near the bus.
Another challenge has been getting residents to trust the bus. David Derbyshire, a community development worker, has been working with the coach team to get more people to stop eyeing it warily and come use the service.
“I say ‘There’s a big bus. Come on over. I’ll introduce you,’” he said.
“I tell them they’re worth it. The government has invested this money because they’re worth it…Once the trust and confidence has been established, they’ll say ‘You know what? I haven’t had a test. Maybe I should get a test.’”
The coach operates from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday.