Retaining mammography services at the Bulkley Valley District Hospital

Over 50 women and men gathered at the Smithers Legion last Wednesday with one goal in mind: retaining mammography services at the Bulkley Valley District Hospital (BVDH).

They created a steering committee to push the agenda with Northern Health, politicians and the general public before new regulations make the current screening machine obsolete next year.

Debbie Courtliff is designated chair of the group.

“I was involved with the Cancer Society for 15 years. I was the chair of the local branch for five. I’ve met a lot of women who’ve had to deal with cancer, breast cancer. And I personally know what it’s like to go through that journey and I also know how hard it is to go to Terrace,” she said.

The current plan calls for diagnostic screening to be done at Mills Memorial in Terrace. A mobile screening truck would be deployed to Smithers a couple times per year. Those tests determine whether a diagnostic follow-up would be needed.

“I drive, I am retired, I have money, I can go to Terrace. A lot of women I’ve met can’t do that,” said Courtliff.

Dr. Jaco Fourie is Northern Health’s Northwest medical director explained to The Interior News in April that about 380 to 400 people would have to travel to terrace to get the diagnostic exams per year. He said expanding and integrating ultrasound and mammography in Terrace to minimize travel, with the plan being to do an ultrasound if a morning diagnostic exam called for it.

He also explained that Northern Health, which covers all of northern B.C. from Haida Gwaii to Quesnel, is running at 700 per cent capacity for mammography because of the vast distances between communities. He pointed out that with the number of people needing the screening, one digital machine would be enough.

Northern Health plans on installing three approximately $1-million digital machines across the region in Fort St. John, Prince George and Terrace, though a final decision has not been made yet. Fort St. John has already been converted to digital.

The committee is aware that money is not the issue, as charities in the Bulkley Valley would step up if needed. The Screening Mammography Program of BC uses a formula to determine where machines go.

A 2014 Medical Imaging Strategic Plan report listed BVDH as using mammography screening three hours per day, five days per week. That report predicted an adjusted rate of five hours per day, five days per week by 2025.

But one noticeable aspect of the 2014 report was that while 384 people were getting screenings done, Northern Health’s target for Smithers was 770.

That means screening should be double what it is now, and not enough women are getting it done.

The report also reads, “The time from suspicion of breast cancer to diagnosis and start of treatment can make the difference between life and death for this patient group.”

It goes on to read that creating three breast health hubs with more services in one place would help minimize that time to diagnosis and treatment.

It also calls for consolidation to have fewer radiologists and raise efficiency.

With patients travelling from as far as Hazelton and Burns Lake to use the Smithers screening, Courtliff hopes to get those communities and their councils on board.

“It’s absolutely important because it’s bad enough for Smithers, but if you’re in Granisle, or you’re Topley, or you’re Hazelton, or Houston, that’s just an additional 15 minutes to 45-minute drive for them. So that becomes a three-hour-plus drive,” she said.

“It’s hard to do that, especially in the winter … so that means hotels, food, transportation.”

The next meeting is planned for September, and people at the meeting were encouraged to talk to everyone they could to garner more interest and action.

“Everyone who is here, grey hair or not, for God’s sake go out and talk to your hairdresser, to your daughter, to your friend, your neighbour. Really, seriously, and tell them because these young women who say, ‘oh well, I’m only 30, I don’t need it.’ But that’s not what it is. It’s the young people who are going to push this thing forward,” said one woman.

Committee members signed up last Wednesday include Courtliff, Dr. Blouw, Dennis Mackay, Laura McKay, Margaret McDonald, Joanne Kil, LeAnne Malthus, and Irene Williams.

A petition to keep mammography services in Smithers garnered over 1,200 signatures by last week.