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Mobile Mammography Coach

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

by John Stang, Daily Inter Lake

Special Mammogram Bus Hits The Road

Barbara Baumgartner and Jane Winkley have never met. But their paths crossed Monday in Cut Bank.

Baumgartner, 78, went to Cut Bank's Northern Rockies Medical Center for her annual mammogram. She has done so for about a dozen years after a doctor told her it would be a good idea.

On Monday morning, she walked out the hospital's back door to a 40-foot-long coach in its parking lot to become the Winkley Women's Center's second patient on its first day in the field."It is different. It's probably better," Baumgartner said.

The coach's mammography equipment is different from what Baumgartner had been used to. It's digital, meaning a computer image of the interior of a patient's breast will be ready by the time the woman is ready to leave the exam.

Most mammogram equipment in Montana uses film, meaning the images aren't as precise as digital, and must be carried to someone to interpret them. A digital image can be transmitted electronically to the physician who will interpret it.

To Baumgartner, the actual mammogram process felt the same — a squishy pressure on her breast that was uncomfortable for a few seconds. She was matter-of-fact about the mammogram — a routine procedure that makes sense to her as a precautionary measure. The procedure has detected no signs of cancer in her. "I'm very fortunate," Baumgartner said.

The coach — officially called the Winkley Women's Center — will be displayed at an open house at its base at Kalispell Regional Medical Center from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday. Starting last Monday, the coach began visiting nine rural Montana hospitals — stopping at each every two or four weeks. Those hospitals are at Browning, Cut Bank, Plains, Eureka, Chester, Fort Benton, Malta, Conrad and Choteau. On Monday in Cut Bank, the coach's staff saw five patients.

"We're trying to get to people who normally don't get mammograms," said Margie White, one of the coach's two mammogram technologists.

Many of these rural hospitals already use Kalispell Regional Medical Center to handle their mammogram film. But the Winkley Women's Center coach brings the faster, more thorough digital machinery to those same hospitals — plus a few more.

Jana Rupp, Kalispell Regional's director of imaging services, said the presence of the mobile equipment is expected to increase the number of mammogram patients at the rural hospitals.

The coach — which also contains breast ultrasound and bone density measurement equipment — was built because of a donation of more than $1 million from cancer survivor Jane Winkley.

Winkley, now 71, had breast cancer in 1999; her sister survived a bout with breast cancer years earlier. Winkley's breast cancer showed up as a tiny spot on a mammogram before it was confirmed as cancer. Her left breast and 15 lymph nodes had to be removed.

"I was one of the lucky ones," Winkley said.

Fast forward to last year. Kalispell Regional recruited two physicians — Dr. Loren Rourke, a surgeon, and Dr. Debra Accord, a breast imaging specialist — for its breast cancer center that is currently under construction.

Winkley found out that Accord was having trouble with the quality of some images from the mammogram films. And she found out that some northern Montana women have to wait as long as six months between finding a tiny lump on a breast and getting results from a film mammogram.

"That's unreal. You can't wait. To have something unknown and wait six months to find out what it is — that's unacceptable," Winkley said.

That prompted Winkley to donate more than $1 million to construct and deliver the coach and its mammography equipment.

"If there's one woman that we can get to on time, it's worth the entire thing," Winkley said.

Doctors recommend that women 40 years of age and older get mammograms once every one or two years. Nationwide, 73 percent of women in that age group get mammograms annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Flathead County, an estimated 43 percent of women 40 and older are getting annual mammograms, Rourke and Accord said in an interview last year. No one knows why Flathead County's figures are significantly lower than the national average.

Breast cancer is the second or third most likely cause of death among women who suffer cancer, depending on which statistics are cited. A woman has a one-in-eight chance of getting invasive breast cancer and a one-in-33 chance of dying a breast cancer-related death, according to the American Cancer Society.

The CDC estimates that routine mammograms have trimmed breast cancer deaths by 20 percent for women in their 40s, and from 20 percent to 35 percent for women ages 50 to 69. About 94 percent of breast cancers are found in women 40 and older, according to federal figures.

Breast cancer is also found in men, though rarely.

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