MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to launch new state-of-the-art mobile health unit

October 27, 2021
First lady Dr. Jill Biden talks with Dr. Craig Lockhart on the mobile health unit
The new mobile health unit will travel to rural and underserved communities and offer breast and cervical cancer screenings. Photos by Marquel Coaxum

Saving lives with convenience in mind – that’s what organizers of the new MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s mobile health unit hope to do. The unit, which will officially launch in November, will travel to rural and underserved communities and offer breast and cervical cancer screenings using state-of-the-art technology.

“This mobile health unit targets patients who may otherwise not have access to this type of health care, either for financial reasons or lack of transportation,” said Cindie Thrower, a mammographer at Hollings who will help with mammograms on the mobile health unit. “By going to these patients, versus having them come to us here in Charleston, it opens the door to critical health care access that could wind up saving lives.”

Thrower is excited to offer this service to communities across the state, adding that the new unit has 3D tomosynthesis mammography equipment. “By using 3D imaging, the camera is taking images in slices at different angles,” she said. “This allows the doctors to examine each layer of the breast more exhaustively and see areas of concern better than with the traditional 2D mammogram machines.”

First lady Dr. Jill Biden stands for a photo with MUSC staff 
First lady Dr. Jill Biden stopped for a photo in front of the new mobile health unit with (left to right) Dr. David J. Cole, Dr. Ned Sharpless, Dr. Rebecca Leddy, Dr. Craig Lockhart, Dr. Raymond N. DuBois, Dr. Marvella Ford, Bria Sanders, Darlene Gaffney and Alicia Commodore.

The upgraded machine is a game-changer, said Tonya Perkins, R.N., a Hollings nurse practitioner who also will help to staff the new mobile unit. Perkins said 3D imaging is especially important for women at high risk of breast cancer and those women who have dense breast tissue, which can make detecting breast cancer early on more difficult.

“When we talk to patients about dense breast tissue, we explain to them that dense breasts are a white background. If you have calcifications that are white and tumors that are white, then it is harder to see everything because of the white background. Fattier breast tissue is dark, so tumors and calcifications are easier to see,” Perkins said.

This mobile health unit carries on the longstanding tradition of the former Hollings’ mobile health unit, which first launched 23 years ago. From 2015 to October 2019, the unit helped to provide mammograms and pap smears to more than 7,000 women across 31 counties in South Carolina and helped to diagnose 53 women with breast cancer. Of the women screened, 80% reported they wouldn’t have sought a breast or cervical cancer screening had it not been for the mobile health unit coming to where they live or work.

This effort continues a well-established partnership with South Carolina’s Best Chance Network, which provides breast and cervical cancer screenings at no cost for women who qualify. In addition, the new mobile health unit will partner with Healthy Me – Healthy SC, a collaborative effort between MUSC and Clemson to reach underserved areas and end health disparities in South Carolina. Between the two entities, all 46 counties in South Carolina will be served.

The mission to detect cancer early and save lives is important to Perkins, whose mother battled ovarian cancer and whose father died of mesothelioma. “This is personal and important for me to help people get their screenings, based on my own family history of disease and cancer.”

J. David Sudduth, executive director of Healthy Me – Healthy SC, said the mobile unit will aid in their mission to serve rural and underserved communities across the state. “This new Hollings Cancer Center mobile unit will allow us to combine the latest technology with outstanding clinical care to fight cancer right where people live and work,” Sudduth said.

Ensuring that the mobile unit reaches those communities is important to David Bush, the driver of the unit. The upcoming launch will mark Bush’s fifth year driving the mobile health unit, which, he said, has been one of the most rewarding periods of his life.

“I get to interact with patients and feel like I’m helping someone who might not otherwise have access to health care,” Bush said.

The former professional truck driver moved to Charleston from Baltimore decades ago. He, like Perkins, said the mobile health unit is a personal mission and one of the reasons he’s excited to get back out on the road. Bush lost his 49-year-old mother to lymphoma when he was only 23 years old. 

“My hope is that people take advantage of the mobile health unit and become annual patients so that we can catch any changes in their breasts as early as possible and help them to have the best outcome as possible.”
— Cindy Thrower

“There wasn’t any real early detection back then,” he said. “She had an earache, went to her doctor, and they found the cancer. And six months later she was gone. The doctors back then said, ‘If only we found it earlier.’ Now I get to play a part in potentially helping someone detect a cancer early, and that’s really rewarding.”

With Bush behind the wheel and Perkins and Thrower providing access to critical screenings to patients, the Hollings mobile health unit team hopes to use the new technology onboard to improve the care services they provided in the former unit for two decades. Thrower said she is excited about the opportunities this state-of-the-art unit provides for patients.

“My hope is that people take advantage of the mobile health unit and become annual patients so that we can catch any changes in their breasts as early as possible and help them to have the best outcome as possible.”

Appointments are required for patients of the mobile health unit. In order to schedule the unit, you must have a minimum of 20 confirmed patients. Those interested in booking the mobile health unit should call 843-792-0878 or send an email to hccoutreachservices@musc.edu.

Healthy Me – Healthy SC provides funding for operations, which comes from MUSC’s Health Innovation dollars from the South Carolina General Assembly. The new mobile health unit was purchased for nearly $1 million by MUSC, MUSC Health and Hollings Cancer Center.

About the Author

Josh Birch
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer