YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Getting a mammogram after age 40 may seem routine but many women who live in underserved communities have never had one or skip regular testing.
The Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center is addressing that problem by bringing its mobile mammography unit to local churches.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate jumps to 99% when breast cancer is detected in the localized stage.
Dr. Rashid Abdu, who started the Joanie Abdu Center as a promise to his wife before her death from breast cancer, says he is concerned that poorer women often come later to get a mammogram and die earlier. Those who are not diagnosed until they have Stage 3 or Stage 4 breast cancer are harder to treat.
“Early detection of breast cancer… it is so important for women 40 and over to have screening mammography, and now with 3D, what you can pick up is amazing and accurate,” Abdu says.
He cites one study of 67 local inner-city women with Stage 3 or 4 breast cancer that showed half of them never had a mammogram while the rest had not had one for two to 10 years.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States for Black and Hispanic women, according to BreastCancer.com
“I always say, I believe with all my heart, that no woman should ever die from breast cancer just because she is poor,” Abdu says. “That is one of the reasons we have the mammovan, to reach the unreachable and go into various communities.”
By reaching out to women at churches, the Abdu Center seeks to reach even more women – including those who may not trust anyone but their pastors.
“It really takes a person of trust in the middle to let people know there are a million different reasons that this is something you should do and more important how to do it,” says Dr. Donald Keenan, a breast surgeon at Joanie Abdu.
Laura Boomhower, the Joanie Abdu community educator, recently spoke at Rising Star Baptist Church on Wardle Avenue in Youngstown. She returned the following week with the 3D mobile mammography unit, providing a mammogram to 13 women, including three whom had never had the test.
“We are going to every church that we can,” Abdu says. “We want to make sure that no women regardless of color, creed or economic status dies from breast cancer.”
Boomhower, who also leads Joanie’s Sisters, a support group for breast cancer survivors, says most of the women diagnosed with later stage breast cancer in 2018 and 2019 came from Youngstown and Warren, which prompted more initiatives to reach the underserved.
Boomhower has two more visits planned to other churches this month, as well as an invitation to speak with 100 women at a retreat.
“I tell them screening is so important. Because if we catch your cancer early, your outcome is much better,” Boomhower says. “It’s more treatable. You have a better success rate. The earlier you catch it the better. Once it spreads, it becomes more difficult to treat and the outcomes are not as good.”
After she speaks to women, she signs them up and then returns with the mobile mammography unit. The 3D technology in the van can detect breast cancer long before a lump can be felt.
Affectionately known as Joanie on the Go!, the mammovan travels throughout the area – schools, churches, community locations, businesses, local health centers and health fairs. It has been set up at large employers, such as the TJ Maxx Distribution Center and Ultium Cell plant in Lordstown and at schools, where teachers and staff use the service.
Some women fail to get tested because of lack of opportunity, information or transportation. Others do not simply because they do not take the time to take care of themselves.
“A lot of women are busy, taking care of their homes, their families, and they don’t want to take the time to do it. But it’s so important,” Boomhower says. “They need to do that for their family so they’re here.”
Testing is even more critical for daughters of women who had breast cancer.
Besides early detection, newer treatments are increasing cancer survival rates. Boomhower says there are 22-year survivors of breast cancer in Joanie’s Sisters now.
“It’s not the same as it was in the past, especially if caught early,” she says.
Keenan, part of the treatment team, joined the Joanie Abdu Center team in February 2022 after practicing many years in Pittsburgh.
Keenan calls Abdu the “vision guy”and Dr. Nancy Gantt, a breast surgeon and medical co-director of the center, the “motor.” Keenan says both have been dedicated to making the Abdu Center a place where patients can receive the highest quality of care accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers.
“The other thing that is really important about this place is the people are just so nice,” Keenan says. “That makes a difference when you are a woman walking in the door. … We know that the vast majority of women who walk in the door here with breast cancer have a good prognosis. … Hope is the word. And we can give legitimate hope to almost everybody walking in the door. We know that. But they don’t know that. They’re shaken.”
Surgeons like Keenan work directly at the Joanie Abdu Center next to St. Elizabeth Hospital on Belmont Avenue. Treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy can be arranged at other Mercy Health facilities closer to the patient’s home.
Newer treatments may no longer call for immediate surgery in many cases. Instead, the team might suggest geonomic testing to see how the cancer will react to medication treatment first, perhaps seeking to shrink a tumor before determining what, if anything, should be surgically removed.
Keenan says very few women today require a complete mastectomy or the complete removal of lymph nodes under the arms as they battle breast cancer. While a patient may want immediate surgery, Keenan says a thoughtful approach is better.
“The cancer biology is so important to this disease and we have treatment now that is targeted to certain markers on cancer cells,” Keenan says. “That’s where all the research and the funding comes in. The breast surgery is a small part of curing people. It’s that whole package of medical onocology radiation that’s really important.”
The Abdu Center holds regular conference team meetings where each patient’s case is discussed before treatment. Keenan says every part of the team is on board. Abdu is known to join in on the conferences.
The team looks at the best course of treatment and although the delay can frighten some patients, Keenan encourages women to become educated about their disease.
“It’s important to do your research. It’s important to think about your decisions,” Keenan says. “There’s a time constraint on it. But it’s not weeks. It’s not even a month. We’re not going to let dangerous time go by. But doing the right thing always pays off and sometimes expediency takes people down a pathway that’s not always right for them.”
Some women may come to the Abdu Center with an entire team of family and friends, who are there to provide support and get answers. He knows people are going to worry when they get that breast cancer diagnosis. If they are educated to understand why a certain test or treatment will work, they are more likely to make a better decision.
“Education is a wonderful antidote for anxiety,” Keenan says.
The Abdu Center finds a way to get life-saving cancer treatment for everyone – even those without insurance.
“There are always resources, even if you have no insurance. So, if a woman feels a lump… you call here. They’re going to connect you with people who are going to get this taken care of for you,” Keenan says.
Pictured at top: Laura Boomhower reaches out to the underserved community encouraging residents to undergo a mammogram in the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center van, affectionately referred to as “Joanie on the Go!”