Mobile breast cancer clinics on reserves helping early detection and prevention

Women on the Tsuut’ina Reserve, which borders Calgary, have been getting screened for breast cancer this week in the heart their own community.

Screening truck brings mammogram services to First Nations to overcome barriers

One of two mobile breast cancer screening clinics run by Alberta Health Services parked at the Tsuut’ina Nation’s health centre this week. The trailers now serve 26 Alberta First Nations. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Women on the Tsuut'ina reserve, which borders Calgary, have been getting screened for breast cancer this week in the heart of their own community.

The mobile mammography service, run by Alberta Health Services, brings cancer screening to at-risk groups in 120 communities where mammography isn't available, including 26 First Nations.

The service is aimed at women from 50 to 75 years old, who are the group most at risk from the disease.

Early detection leads to an increased number of treatment options and a better chance of surviving breast cancer, but First Nations women often struggle to access mammograms and go unscreened.

"A lot of women face unique barriers, including women who don't have access to a car and really limited public transit options," said Harmony McRae, health promotion facilitator for Screen Test.

McRae says First Nations women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer but their diagnoses are often more serious and advanced when they are. That's why bringing screening services direct to their communities can help.

Inside the mobile breast cancer screening clinic. Women can access mammograms without leaving the reserve, overcoming barriers including access to transportation and dealing with large facilities in the city. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"Their breast cancers are often found at later stages and we don't want that," said McRae.

McRae says trust can also be an issue for First Nations communities when it comes to services that visit reserves.

"Sometimes it takes a few years. I know there are a lot of services that start in a community and don't go back again. So once they see we come back year after year, they start to trust us, and often it's even the same technologists that are working," said McRae.

The mobile screening trailer currently visits the Tsuut'ina, Siksika Nation, Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Blood Tribe.

McRae says women should get screened every two years until they turn 75.

Veronica Grosariu with the Tsuut’ina Health and Wellness Centre says screening can be the difference between life and death for First Nations women, who often don’t find out about cancers until they are at an advanced stage. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"Sometimes it's the difference between life and death," said Veronica Grosariu, who works with the Tsuut'ina Nation Health and Wellness Centre.

"It eliminates the need for transportation into Calgary. Just the fact you're going to a hospital or professional building is intimidating for some women," said Grosariu.

She says many women now spread the word in the community when the truck is coming and encourage others to get screened. 

"It's amazing to see the results of early intervention and early screening," she said. "It's made a huge difference in attendance, and people are willing to come back," she said.

Grosariu says they had at least 40 women screened last year thanks to the mobile unit.

She says it will be back in that community next fall.