In Tamil Nadu, India, two doctors, both members of the Rotary Club of Srirangam, discovered an alarming trend in the remote city outskirts of Trichy, women dying of breast cancer.
Drs. K. Govindaraj and K.N. Srinivasan knew that much of the death and suffering could be avoided, and both were motivated by their personal experiences with the disease. Govindaraj watched his mother die of breast cancer a decade earlier, and helped found the Dr. K. Shantha Breast Cancer Foundation in her memory. Srinivasan, an oncologist, witnessed unprecedented growth in the number of younger patients coming to his clinic with advanced stages of the disease.
According to the National Cancer Registry of India, 20 to 40 women per 100,000 are suffering from breast cancer. And because many women lack the resources to travel to the city, or the$50 fee for proper screening , the doctors needed a unique approach. During a trip to South Korea, Govindaraj saw a large van outfitted with X-ray equipment parked outside a mall, and thought a moving doctor’s office and lab -- or “mammobus” -- could overcome the challenges they faced.
Through a Rotary global grant, the men were able to buy and outfit their own bus. Since April 2012 the Shantha Foundation’s mammobus, supported by local Rotarians and the Rotary Club of Rockville, Maryland, USA, has administered 2,500 free breast cancer screenings. Early stage cancer has been detected and treated in six women, and thousands have been taught how to conduct regular self-exams, an important means of early detection.
“Women have started feeling that they have easy access to health without compromising their day-to-day work and earnings,” Srinivasan says. “Women come out to our health workers with their health-related problems and discuss freely about various aspects of health and diseases, not just about breast cancer.’’
The mammobus cost $34,000 and is equipped with a mammography machine, an ultrasonogram, and materials that teach the method and importance of self-exams. The Shantha Foundation maintains the vehicle and reaches out to nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups, and employers to arrange visits. The bus stops anywhere a large group of women congregate, with priority given to rural areas. The Srirangam club also helps line up visits and widely promotes the bus through various media.
“More and more clubs and NGOs want to participate and are booking the mammobus well in advance,” says Srinivasan. “We are already booked until the end of May.”
Govindaraj says if something is detected during screening, the woman is given the choice to get a biopsy at the Shantha Foundation’s affiliated hospital, or to have the foundation arrange a biopsy with a local radiologist.
If a biopsy proves malignant, the woman is advised to undergo treatment in a hospital in her own city or, if willing, to receive treatment at the Shantha Foundation hospital. Either way, the procedure is covered by government insurance. The foundation provides follow-up support and counseling for patients and families.
Dr. Chenguttai Dheenan, a retired surgeon and member of the Rotary Club of Rockville, Maryland, USA, became involved in the project after he met a member from Tamil Nadu at Rotary’s international convention. In addition to convincing his club to support the project, Dheenan, a lifelong member of the American Tamil Medical Association, secured a $5,000 donation from the association.
“In many cases, this will be the first doctor these women have seen,” says Dheenan. “This venture is bringing life-saving detection right to their doorsteps.”
Rotary members have also been lining up volunteers to ride on the bus and talk to the women about HIV/AIDS awareness and other health issues.
Meanwhile, the doctors have been gathering medical data that will benefit universities in India and other countries, data that up to this point had not been available.
“I wish and pray for many more mammobuses in our country,” says Srinivasan. “Healthy women are the backbone of a community.”