Mobile clinics remove barriers to breast-cancer screening

To mark breast cancer awareness month in October, HSAA member and mammography technologist Janneta Zelezkina explains how mobile clinics are bringing vital screening to rural communities across Alberta. Photos: Zelezkina, left, and fellow mammography technologist Heather Andrews outside the mobile unit, photo courtesy of Zelezkina. Below, the exterior of the mobile unit and the exam room inside, photos courtesy of the Alberta Cancer Prevention Legacy Fund (ACPLF).

By Janneta Zelezkina,
Mammography Technologist,
Holy Cross Centre, Calgary

With breast cancer awareness month in October, Screen Test is celebrating 26 years of mobile mammography services across Alberta, screening women and detecting thousands of cancers early and ultimately saving lives. 

Community co-ordinator Harmony McRae stated that Screen Test began when “AHS was finding that women in rural communities were having trouble accessing screening mammography. The idea was created to bring the service to them.” 

Screen Test removes barriers to screening and provides access for women in the convenience of their own community. 

There are two mobile breast cancer screening clinics. One is based out of Edmonton and the other out of Calgary. Each mobile clinic is a self-contained 53-ft. long trailer, which is fully equipped with a lobby, change room and examination area.

The north unit serves rural areas from Edmonton all the way to High Level, East to St. Paul near the Saskatchewan border, and West to Jasper in the Rocky Mountains. The south unit covers rural areas south of Edmonton, East to the Kitscoty near the Saskatchewan border, West to Rocky Mountain House, and South all the way to Cardston, near the U.S. Border.  Today, the two mobile clinics visit more than 110 rural communities every year, including 23 indigenous communities. 

Who is working in Screen Test mobile clinics? 

Screen Test Mobile Mammography Technologists (techs) work in alternating teams, with two teams for each mobile clinic. Each team includes two mobile techs. Techs travel across the province to provide service during the clinics. 

What is typical work day like for the Screen Test technologist?

Mobile techs work three days of 12-hour shifts. They drive to the mobile site and set up the clinic. After each trailer move, the techs arrive early to perform quality control of the mammography equipment. They operate six days per week, from Monday to Saturdays. Morning, afternoon, evening and weekend appointments are available, which makes it convenient for women who do not have to take time off work for an appointment. 

For each three-day rotation, the techs stay in the community for two nights. Because of the time away from home, this job is not for everybody. Long working days and being away from a family requires a certain personality and a lot of commitment. It takes a flexible, dedicated person to be able to work in remote areas of Alberta, as travelling in varying weather conditions is a big part of the job. 

Screen Test mobile techs meet so many different people in different communities every year. They interact with hundreds of volunteers and hospital staff, municipalities and RCMP. They have to learn pretty quickly the best bakeries, restaurants and highlights in each community. The Alberta culture is varied and versatile, and there is a lot to learn and experience. 

The time frame for staying in each place depends on the size of the screening population. For example, a clinic might be four weeks in Drumheller, and only one day in Tangent. The mobile clinic can perform up to 50 mammograms a day. Screen Test’s goal is to screen all eligible women aged 50-74 in each community to be able to detect breast cancer in its early stages. 

The Screen Test service would not exist without the experience and expertise of the mobile technologists. The techs have had to acquire some mechanical skills since the trailer runs on generators. 

Some communities have an electric plug-in for the trailer, but most sites do not have that luxury. Being a mobile tech means you can’t just be a great mammographer, but also need to be a good mechanic, great communicator and excellent team player. Most of the techs have been working for many years.  They love to work with clients in rural Alberta and make the difference in peoples’ lives. 

Since it began, Screen Test has completed 466,858 mammograms for 178,000 Albertans. Out of those screened, more than 21,000 Albertans have had an abnormal result and were recalled for further testing. Out of the clients recalled, more than 2,500 have had breast cancers detected. 

“Our mobile screening units are able to reach women who otherwise may not get a screening mammogram,” Dr. Belanger, AHS vice-president, quality and chief medical offices.  “We can bring services to unique populations, and rural and remote communities as well. I want to thank the many staff and volunteers who have helped make this service so successful over the past 25 years.”