Mobile Cancer Screening & Education unit Expanding Access to Breast Cancer Screening in North Central Florida

With a $1.5-million grant awarded through University of Florida President Ben Sasse’s strategic funding initiative and matching funds from the UF Health Cancer Center, a mobile mammography unit will be outfitted with leading-edge technology to bring a range of cancer screening and health care services directly to the community. The unit will be the first of its kind in North Central Florida — a region larger than Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. The mobile unit is expected to begin operating this fall.

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Reducing Barriers to Care

Breast cancer is among the most prevalent cancers in North Central Florida, with rural communities having higher rates of advanced stages of the disease (cancers that are the hardest to treat), as well as higher mortality. These rural communities also have high poverty rates, which often lead to significant barriers for those trying to access preventive health care.

A look at the interior of the mobile unit.
A rendering of the mobile unit’s interior. Courtesy of Tesco.

Mobile mammography units are powerful tools that help detect cancer in its early stages so that treatment can begin as quickly as possible (before the disease spreads). These units are cost-effective, reducing the need for physical infrastructure and easing the burden on health systems. And studies have shown that mobile mammography units are effective for reaching underserved communities.

a wide angle photo of the mobile mammography unit under construction.
The mobile unit during construction in late spring. Courtesy of Tesco.

The mobile unit will also be equipped to provide screening for other diseases, including cervical and colorectal cancers. To increase the unit’s impact and ensure continuity of care, highly trained community health workers will help patients access primary care services and connect with UF research studies. The team also will help uninsured community members apply for vouchers from the Florida Department of Health to cover mammography costs.

“As a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, the UF Health Cancer Center is charged with addressing the burden of cancer in the large area we serve, with a strong focus on rural and aging populations,” said Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center. “This innovative mobile unit will enhance our evidence-based outreach efforts in unprecedented ways. Our goal is to reduce the burden of late-stage cancer diagnoses and mortality through early detection and personalized services that help people access the treatment they need.” Read more.

By the Numbers

15 15 of the 23 counties the UF Health Cancer Center serves have mammogram rates (a measure of how many women who are eligible for mammograms actually receive one) below the state average. Most of these counties are rural. All 15 of these rural counties have rates of advanced-stage diagnosis (cancers that are the hardest to treat), that are higher than the state’s rate.

10 10 of the 23 counties have breast cancer mortality rates higher than the state average.

12 Of the 25 counties with the highest mortality in the state, 12 are in the area the Cancer Center serves.

Mobile Unit Services

Providing a range of cancer screening and education services

To better serve this population, the mobile unit will feature more than just mammograms. It will offer screenings for cervical, colon, and other cancers, as well as health care services and education.

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Mammography

A mammogram is a special type of X-ray of the breasts; it is an essential screening for identifying breast cancer when it is small and has not spread. Early detection means a better chance of successful treatment. Women can start getting mammograms at age 40, and the American Cancer Society advises that all women have annual mammograms by age 45.  The unit will have the same 3D mammography technology as UF Health clinics. By providing a clearer and more detailed image of the breast tissue, 3D mammography can help radiologists distinguish between normal breast tissue and potential abnormalities more effectively. 

Cervical cancer screenings 

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The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer, which is among the most preventable cancers due to highly effective HPV vaccines that reduce the risk of getting the strains of the HPV virus that are known to cause cancer. Cervical cancer screening is completed with an HPV test, a swab that is typically collected at the same time as a woman’s annual exam during their Pap smear. The HPV screening identifies those at risk for changes to their cervical cells. Often providers will send a small sample of the cells they collect during the Pap exam for a process called cytology where the cells are examined for any changes. The mobile unit will offer cervical cancer screening with HPV testing and, if needed, a Pap to collect cells for cytology. Women who are sexually active at age 21 should talk to their provider about getting screened for cervical cancer. Starting at age 25, women should get a primary HPV test every five years to stay up to date on cervical cancer screening. If any HPV screening tests are positive, providers will recommend more frequent screening.

Colorectal cancer screenings

People visit the giant inflatable colon provided by WellFlorida.

Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cancer killer in the U.S. among cancers that affect both men and women. Routine screening is recommended for everyone, beginning at age 45, and screening can save lives by allowing treatment to begin before the disease spreads. People can get screened for colorectal cancer in a variety of ways; one option is through the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool. The mobile unit will provide FIT tests, and experienced health care workers will provide detailed instructions on how people can easily perform the test at home. Completed tests will be returned to health care providers who will follow up as needed. 

Prostate cancer screenings 

Prostate cancer screenings for men typically begin with a visit to a primary care doctor, which involves health history, prostate surface antigen testing, and digital rectal exams. Doctors staffing the mobile unit will provide patients with individualized advice on when and how to get screened for prostate cancer. 

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Access to primary care services 

The mobile screening unit will take a holistic approach to ensure every patient’s health needs are met. Trained health care workers will guide patients to needed care in the community. Staff and patients will work together to make decisions and create coordinated health care plans. Staff will also help patients set personal goals to manage their health by providing education on controlling blood pressure, eating nutritious meals, and incorporating an exercise routine. 

Financial navigation 

Mobile unit staff will provide education on financial assistance resources available in the community. In addition, staff will help anyone in need apply on site for vouchers from the Florida Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Through this program, breast and cervical cancer screenings are free or low cost for those who meet eligibility requirements.  

Connection to UF research studies

People can also learn about opportunities to participate in research studies at the University of Florida. Many research studies are open to patients who have never had cancer.  

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