Mammograms are a very important tool to ensure breast cancer is caught early, when it’s more easily treatable. Getting these screenings regularly can also lower your risk of dying of the disease. However, new data from the American Cancer Society (ACS) shows that for many women, these services are fairly far away.
A team of researchers at ACS recently compared mammography location data in the contiguous United States from 2006 and 2022, and then estimated the number of women of screening age who had to travel for at least 20 minutes to obtain a mammogram. The findings, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed that the numbers were substantial across the country, but especially for rural women, with more than 50% in 28 states experiencing limited accessibility.
Dr. Daniel Wiese, the study’s lead author and senior scientist in cancer disparity research at ACS, says, “Our findings are concerning. Mammography is widely available in the United States, but barriers, such as long drive times, are likely influencing a woman’s decision to get screened. We need to move forward on programs to remove these barriers so women can access this potentially life-saving screening.”
The study found that limited screening accessibility impacted 12.2% of women in 2022, down slightly from 12.7% in 2006. However, the population increase in that time meant that the number of women in this group jumped from 7.5 million to 8.2 million. There were also 10 states where the figure was higher than 26%, with most located in the Rocky Mountain region and the South. The Rocky Mountain region also had the highest rates of rural women with limited accessibility.
The team found that things were a bit better for rural residents in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region, and in urban areas across the country, where less than 5% of women in 35 states struggled with accessibility. There were also states which saw marked improvement over the 16-year period, with South Dakota and Mississippi seeing their figures decline by 5.1% and 4.8%, respectively.
The researchers say there are a few things that could be done to improve these numbers.
Dr. Wiese explains, “The simple answer would be to open more breast cancer screening facilities in sparsely populated areas, but this can be economically and logistically challenging. Providing transportation or promoting the use of mobile screening units may be alternative actions, although further research is needed to improve the effectiveness of mobile screening units in increasing participation in breast cancer screening in rural areas.”
It’s not just screening that can require substantial travel for women. Breast cancer patients often deal with the same issue during treatment, with recent research finding that Native American women in particular travel longer distances to access their care.