By STERRY BUTCHER
FAR WEST TEXAS – A mobile mammography unit that will save Big Bend women hundreds of miles of travel will roll into the area later this month.
Desert Imaging, of El Paso, is expanding its outreach effort and bringing its Digital Mammography Coach for day-long visits to Alpine, Van Horn and Marfa on October 28-30.
The need is so great that all the appointments are already filled, said Mary Clare Spear, of Big Bend Regional Medical Center. Don’t worry, though. More visits from the mobile unit are in the works.
“They’ve never really come this far before and this is whole new territory for them,” Spear said of Desert Imaging. “They’re coming back in January and we’ve started a list for appointments in January. I’m encouraging everyone to call and get on the list so they can schedule.”
Yearly mammograms are recommended for all women over the age of 40, but the closest mammogram facilities are in Odessa or El Paso. It’s a long way to go for a procedure that only takes a few minutes.
“It’s almost a 500-mile round trip from my home in Terlingua,” said Adrienne Evans, a breast cancer survivor.
For some years, a mobile unit visited the area, but its funding was eventually lost and there was no immediate replacement. Spear then loaded up a Big Bend Regional Medical Center van once a month and ferried women to a mammogram facility in Odessa.
“I did that because we didn’t have anything else,” she said. “Now, we do. I’m very excited.”
Adrienne Evans eats healthfully and leads an active life. Breast cancer doesn’t run in her family. She was 50 years old in 2005, when she found a lump in her breast. Diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, Evans underwent treatment that included a mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
“I foolishly never really thought I was at risk,” she said. “I later learned that most women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. I’m okay now, but it’s much easier to beat if you catch it early. I had put off a mammogram for various reasons. Now, I don’t.”
Early detection can be a lifesaver, say health experts.
“The survival rate is improved tremendously by early detection and better adjuvant therapy,” said Dr. Darrell Parsons, of Presidio County Health Services. “It’s no longer the number one cancer killer for women.”
He’s among the Big Bend health community members who is advocating for Desert Imaging to make regular runs throughout this region, including Presidio and Terlingua. These visits may be scheduled quarterly or, perhaps, monthly in different communities.
“I’ve got so many patients who need it,” Parsons said.
The effort to get a mobile unit to the Big Bend has been a long-held goal of a local grassroots group. Evans, along with Alpine physician Adrian Billings, started the Big Bend Mammography Coalition about two years ago.
“We’re a group of health care providers and survivors that put a lot of hard work, prayers and good wishes for our sisters, daughters and mothers to bring this screening to the Big Bend,” Evans said. “Dr. Billings had witnessed first-hand in his practice what happens when women put off getting screened and he was very determined to get mammograms here.”
The coalition members made inquiries, raised awareness and settled on a list of prioritized criteria.
“Foremost, it needed to be mobile,” said Spear. “Secondly, it needed to be digital, which is better and easier for radiologists to read.”
Mike Ellis, CEO at Big Bend Regional, is ultimately responsible for getting Desert Imaging on board. The traveling mammography unit is indeed digital and can accommodate 50 appointments per day. The appointment book filled very quickly for this first visit. In Alpine, said Spear, 68 women are scheduled for the day.
Spear is no longer driving a van to Odessa for monthly mammography visits. She doesn’t miss the drive, but she’s a little nostalgic for the camaraderie.
“Those trips were always wonderful,” she recalled. “There were usually 10 women who didn’t know each other and every trip was different. One time I had a sewing club and needles were flying while they were all quilting. We’d laugh until we cried. I’m going miss that, but this is better.”
It’s fitting that news of the mobile unit comes now. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. Persistence, dedication and positive thinking have helped secure mammography service for the area, Evans observed. She would know.
“It goes to show that no matter what the obstacle, if people put their minds and hearts to something meaningful, they are truthful, their intentions are grounded in love and they persevere, it will happen,” she said. “That’s the same attitude one needs to overcome any difficulty in life, including overcoming breast cancer.”
Desert Imaging accepts private insurance, Medicare or self-pay. Self-pay is $100. You must be 40 or older. For insurance coverage, it must be at least 366 days since your last mammogram.
To be put on the waiting list for the mobile unit’s January appointments, call Desert Imaging at: 915.577.0100.