WASHINGTON — D.C. has the highest breast cancer death rate in the country, and leading the drive to save lives is a big white van with painted pink ribbons.
Since 1996, the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates’ Mammovan has focused on a single ambitious goal: Get as many women as possible screened for breast cancer.
“The purpose of founding the mobile mammography program was to serve the under- served community,” says Dr. Rachel Brem, director of breast imaging at the GW Medical Faculty Associates Breast Care Center.
Under-served people are at the core of the breast cancer problem in D.C. African-American women often get a virulent form of the disease called “triple negative breast cancer,” putting them at greater risk of dying than Caucasian women.
“It really is our obligation to find the breast cancer in this population as early as possible,” says Brem, emphasizing that bringing the screening to the patients is key.
About 37,500 patients have received mammograms through the years in the mobile unit. More than half — 20,000 — were screened by senior mammographer Beverly Herrera.
Herrera joined the program after her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to her brain. One of Herrera’s sisters is a breast cancer survivor; another recently found she has ovarian cancer.
“Women’s cancers are very close to my heart,” says the master technician, saying she sees her job as a way to give back.
Visiting the toughest neighborhoods in the area gives her the most fulfillment. Herrera says she finds women of great strength and strong faith there. But she also says some are afraid — of the screening and of the diagnosis that could follow.
“You have to make them feel comfortable,” she says; “you have to make sure they want to come back again.”
A number of non-profits and corporations support the Mammovan program, including the Susan G. Komen Beast Cancer Foundation, which will hold its annual Global Race for the Cure in D.C. on Saturday, May 10.
Dr. Judy Solerno, Komen’s president and chief executive, calls the Mammovan “critically important,” because it travels to communities and work sites to offer screenings in a “comfortable, convenient environment.”
Solerno also says that women who get a positive screening for breast cancers are immediately linked to a patient navigator to make sure that early diagnosis is followed by early treatment.