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WSU nursing students, instructors studying breast cancer in Ferry, Okanogan counties

Sat., March 5, 2011

Rural, sparsely populated Ferry County has no mammography facilities – but it does have Eastern Washington’s highest mortality rate from breast cancer, according to recent state data.

Now, backed by a small grant and Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center’s mobile mammography coach, nursing instructors and students at Washington State University are trying to determine why the county’s cancer morbidity rate is so high.

“It is probably high because they don’t have access to early screening and diagnoses, and have less health care,” said Christina Riebe, a Washington State University nursing instructor who received a $22,000 grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “Then they are also so remote they may not be able to follow through on a problem or issue.”

The grant will fund research and bring health fairs to women in Okanogan and Ferry counties. The project focuses on serving women 40 and older, although no woman will be turned down, Riebe said.

About half of Ferry County women weren’t being screened for breast cancer – roughly two times the state average – according to research by project volunteer and recent WSU nursing graduate Aaron McCarty. McCarty said many women in the Okanogan and Ferry counties lack health insurance or transportation to medical centers that offer mammograms.

Many of the women “are just trying to survive and meet their basic need in some of the more rural areas, like heat, food and shelter,” Riebe said.

Ferry County is the least-healthy county in Washington, according to a 2010 study by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The county’s breast cancer mortality rate from 2000 to 2005 was significantly higher than the statewide rate – 40.3 per 100,000 versus a state rate of 23.4, according to a 2009 community profile released by the Eastern Washington affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The WSU group coordinated part of the project with the Sacred Heart mammography coach, which can serve about 25 to 35 people during a two-day visit, said Mani Tanthantourath, who schedules the coach. The coach can travel to Ferry County about 16 days a year, Riebe said.

Education is a key part of the project. Student volunteers hang fliers to publicize screenings and health fairs.

Riebe said some residents were wary of the project.

“They are right. We come in there, we do these projects, and then what?” she said. “What we are trying to figure out is how we can sustain and support these women with ongoing care.”

Riebe said that in the next year, she hopes to find ways to continue the outreach and plans to conduct one or two community assessments and host a health fair next fall. She recently received a six-month extension of the Komen grant, which will allow her to continue working in those rural counties until September.

The Murrow News Service provides stories by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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