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This mobile mammogram vehicle will be used at Navy medical clinics in Japan.

This mobile mammogram vehicle will be used at Navy medical clinics in Japan. (Bob Fowner /Special to S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Among the first patients Cmdr. Stephanie Young saw in her job as chief of radiology at Yokosuka’s base hospital were three very frightened women. They all had breast cancer “at a pretty advanced stage,” Young said.

They were all from Sasebo Naval Base and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Young noticed, where no mammography tests, which could have detected the cancers earlier and made a cure more certain, were available.

“We knew this was a real problem,” Young said. “We weren’t providing the care we thought we should be.”

The three women survived. And Young started on a mission to raise the standard of care for women in the base hospital’s area of responsibility.

On Thursday, nearly three years later, after untold numbers of cost-analyses, schematic designs, logistics planning sessions and phone calls to Washington, D.C., both pleading and exasperating, Young saw her efforts come to fruition.

Parked behind the hospital, it sat: a brand-new, 33-foot-long, $439,000 Toyota mammo van, formally known as the mobile mammography center.

The van, built in Yokohama and equipped with mammography equipment from General Electric Japan, is expected to be approved, certified and ready to roll to outlying clinics within the next couple of months. As far as anyone in Yokosuka can tell, it’s the first mobile mammography van to exist in any military overseas location.

Young and others expect the van, which will visit Sasebo and Iwakuni to start, will sharply increase the number of women getting mammograms.

Although 4,750 women in Yokosuka’s area of responsibility are age 40 or more and, according to most guidelines, should be getting the test every one or two years, only 955 women got mammograms at Yokosuka last year.

Part of the reason is that women from those outlying bases had to travel hundreds of miles over a couple of days to Yokosuka’s hospital to get what’s a half hour test. The length of the travel and the difficulty of making arrangements for children’s care, especially with frequent deployments, made the benefit seem dubious to many women.

“They’ve had to travel great distances for this simple, preventive procedure,” said Capt. Charles Taylor, hospital commander, at a Thursday ribbon-cutting for the van.

Getting a mammogram in a Japanese facility isn’t possible because mammography is highly regulated and facilities must have approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, among other agencies.

Mammography tests can detect cancers too small to feel and, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, significantly reduce “mortality from breast cancer.”

Of the nearly 1,000 women who had the test last year in Yokosuka, 23 underwent tissue biopsy to determine whether suspicious mammogram readings meant cancer. Six of those women did have cancer, Young said. Those statistics are in keeping with national ones in the United States, she said.

Taylor, during his remarks Thursday, noted that many, many people had worked on getting approval and funding for the van from the Navy Medical Logistics Command. Initially, he said, in the mid-1990s, women in Iwakuni and Sasebo, a nurse and commander’s wife, brought the matter to the command’s attention.

But the project stalled, partly because of its expense and complexity, and partly because decision-makers in Washington, D.C., didn’t understand the vast distances and travel difficulties in Japan.

Once when discussing the project with a commander at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Taylor recalled, when it seemed the project was about to be disapproved, the commander remarked, “Iwakuni looks quite close on the map.”

But Yokosuka hospital staffers persevered, no one more than Young. Asked what finally made the van a reality, Cathy Ruehe, the wife of Adm. Rick Ruehe, said three words: “A woman radiologist.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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