Tribal Program Increases Breast Cancer Screening Despite Pandemic

Photo of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan's mobile mammogram van

This picture of the mobile mammogram van was taken at the event outside the Bay Mills Health Center, in Bay Mills, Michigan (Bay Mills Indian Community Reservation).

“I recently lost a relative to cancer. I think it’s important to get these screenings done,” said a member of the Tribal council of the Hannahville Indian Community in northern Michigan.

But women who live on Indian reservations and in rural areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula often find it hard to get screened for cancer. Many women in these communities have low incomes. They often live more than 30 minutes away from a screening facility and have little or no access to public transportation.

These problems were made worse in early 2020, when women and clinics cancelled cancer screening appointments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, unemployment increased across Michigan, so many more women needed the council’s services for uninsured women. From March to June 2020, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan couldn’t hold mobile mammography van events to reach women in the Upper Peninsula. It also had to cancel a large breast cancer screening event planned for May.

In March 2020, the council met with their partners and determined that it was best to reschedule the event to September 2020.

Finding Ways to Reach Women During the Pandemic

In August 2020, the council began reaching out to women through social media, radio, newspapers, and patient reminders to help them keep their breast cancer screening appointments. It also worked with Spectrum Health’s Betty Ford Breast Care Services to reschedule the cancelled screening event.

In September, the partners hosted a mobile mammography van in the Hannahville and Bay Mills Indian communities. They took several steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They asked COVID-19 screening questions when appointments were scheduled, during patient reminder calls, and on the day of the appointment. They also gave women masks and made sure everyone stayed at least six feet apart.

During the five-day event, 118 women got mammograms. That’s 20% more women than the year before, despite the pandemic! On a survey, nearly half of the women said they wouldn’t have gotten a mammogram in 2020 without the mammogram van, and almost all of them said they felt safe getting screened there.

As a result of this event, more than one-third more women in the Hannahville and Bay Mills Indian communities are up to date with their mammograms.

“I hope more girls realize that once you get older you need to be aware of your body and getting things checked for health,” the member of the Tribal council of the Hannahville Indian Community said.