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COVID-19 concerns limit access to preventative care for rural women

The traveling breast cancer screening unit that serves Southeast Alaska won’t be visiting small communities this year, due to COVID-19. For some communities, that means some women won’t receive their annual breast exam. 

The whole point of the Breast Cancer Detection Center’s mobile unit is to give health care access to rural women who are unlikely to travel for preventative care. So, CEO Odette Butler said the decision 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.

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 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 communities that didn’t get service last year due to the mammography unit’s generator failure. That means some women in Haines, Skagway, Hoonah, and Metlakatla will go at least two years without a local option for breast cancer screening. Butler said the point of the unit is to keep women from having to travel for care, but…

“But 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, because I’d hate to see that go for two years,” she said.

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, the case manager for the Breast and Cervical Health Program at SEARHC’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.

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