Local program marks quarter-century of saving lives

Peggy Revell

The Riverside Breast Health Program last week celebrated 25 years of fighting breast cancer across the district.
“I can’t believe it’s 25 years. This is so exciting,” Eva Thornton, one of the program’s founders and first nurse examiners, enthused to the crowd on hand for a celebratory open house last Wednesday afternoon at La Verendrye Hospital.
“There’s never been a lull in women wanting to come,” she noted. “We’ve never had empty schedules.
“And we know of many, many people, many women, that have survived and they’re well and healthy because of early detection.
“We have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot of people to thank,” Thornton added, expressing her gratitude to the La Verendrye Hospital Auxiliary for its support, as well as the Riverside board and administration which found the money needed to run the program year after year.
Thornton also thanked Anna Busch, the director of nurses 25 years ago, for getting the program going.
“[Busch] had a dream 25 years ago, and she not only had a dream, but she had the dedication to make that dream come true,” Thornton lauded, presenting Busch with pink roses in honour of her contributions to the program.
A quarter-century ago, there were very few surviving breast cancer, she noted.
“They would receive the diagnosis of breast cancer, you immediately though death sentence—and usually it was,” she remarked.
Busch was very concerned about this, Thornton recalled, and when she saw an advertisement about a cross-Canada study concerning early detection in breast cancer asking for program participants, she volunteered.
Returning from the program, Busch was “really excited” about it, knowing that it feasible locally, Thornton said.
With the late Dr. Audrey Johnstone acting as medical advisor for the program and Thornton, who sat on the board of directors at the time, the three worked to put together the proposal for the 18-month trial program.
The board of directors was “overwhelmingly pleased about it and accepted it,” recalled Thornton, but added no provincial funding was available for the program back then.
If it were to run, Riverside would have to find money—and it did, she noted.
Starting off, they were allowed half-a-day a week to run the program, and were told to report back in 18 months to see if women across the district responded.
If women responded, Riverside would see if it was an effective program—something that would happen each year.
Those hired for the program received training in Winnipeg from those running the study, Thornton noted.
“And [those running the study] were so excited because we were the first offshoot from the study to start anything in a community,” she said.
“And because we had Dr. Audrey—a doctor full-time at the clinic—they said that we were unique and probably the first of its kind in all of Canada.”
But soon after the program started, Thornton said they realized one more component was needed for it to work: mammograms.
It was the hospital auxiliary that “did the bulk of the funding” for the next couple of years. “And without that, we wouldn’t have had it,” Thornton said.
“In 1987, July, in up the ramp came the machine. And I remember a number of us standing on the ramp just cheering as it came up,” she added, noting they were the first in Northwestern Ontario to receive a mammogram machine.
The auxiliary also stood by the program, just in case Riverside couldn’t find the money, Thornton lauded.
“The hospital auxiliary, at that time, put a year’s amount of budget into a special bank, in case the hospital didn’t have the money to fund us,” she recalled. “And the one year the hospital was short, the hospital auxiliary funded us.
“Now in those days, money was a little different and a year’s budget was $16,000.”
Gradually the program moved from being half-a-day to a full day. Then in 2001 it became affiliated with the Ontario Breast Screening Program—meaning it could receive provincial funding for women age 50 years and older “and, therefore, we could expand the program to what it is today,” Thornton explained.
“We remain committed to supporting the provision of such an invaluable service that has been accessed by thousands of women, including those under the age of 50 who do not meet the Ontario Breast Screening criteria, and has also benefitted many through increased awareness, screening, education and early detection,” praised Lori Maki, executive vice-president and CNO for Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc., who thanked the staff who have worked with the program for their skills and hard work.
Those working the program also were presented with pink flowers in thanks for their dedication.
Also taking the time to speak at last Wednesday’s celebration was Karen Egan, who has been a mammographer with the program since the first unit was installed.
“Our first department consisted of renovating the doctors’ coat room for our machine and film processor,” she recalled.
“It was tiny, but still functional.”
Then in 1999, the current mammogram machine was purchased by Riverside and the department was moved to a bigger room down the hall—more convenient to the breast exam area.
“Our last move was in 2005, to where we now have a dedicated mammography breast exam education suite,” Egan said about the new location, which has the mammogram equipment and breast exam room finally together.
“As technology continually changes, we are very fortunate to have our modernized diagnostic imaging department and highly-qualified staff,” Egan added, noting the next mammography unit will feature digital capabilities.
“The method is still the same but the delivery is improved,” she explained. “Digital will replace film and film processing, which, in turn, will speed up turnaround time and results.
“Images will be able to be viewed instantaneously and transferred electronically to a reader radiologist,” she noted.
“The image can also be manipulated to take a close look at a questionable finding.”
Taking the image also will be quicker, Egan said, meaning there is less time that the breast tissue will have to remain compressed.
“A key advantage with digital will be imaging women or men under 50 and for those with dense breast tissue, regardless of any age,” she remarked.
“Our diagnostic imaging department reflects modernization at its best and when the digital mammography arrives, we can be assured to be providing the ultimate service to our clients.”
“On behalf of the Rainy River District Breast Health Network, I would like to offer our congratulations and gratitude to the Riverside Breast Health Program on the occasion of their 25th anniversary,” said Teresa Hazel, chair of the network, which has been working with the program for the past 15 years to help spread the word on the importance of early detection for breast cancer.
“I remember my first time going, full of apprehension, because my mother unfortunately died of breast cancer,” Hazel noted.
“Helen Swift and Eva Thornton were there to put me at ease—I left feeling comforted and relieved, and so glad that I had finally gone.
“For women who are feeling apprehensive or are thinking it will be uncomfortable, it’s a wonderful program and so worth going—they’re wonderful there,” Hazel enthused, thanking the “visionary leaders” at Riverside, who supported the program despite it not being funded by the province, and the La Verendrye Hospital Auxiliary.
In related news, the Rainy River District Breast Health Network has declared this Friday (Oct. 22) as “Pink Out Day” across the district.
“We are encouraging men, women, and children of all ages to wear pink, decorate pink, and just think pink to support breast cancer awareness,” Hazel said while showing off the pink gloves Riverside’s health care workers will be wearing for the day.
“For those businesses who decide to use ‘Pink Out Day’ as their dress down day, we are encouraging and asking for donations to be given to Riverside Foundation for Health Care to support the purchase of a new digital mammography unit,” she added.
A “Pink Patrol” will be cruising around handing out prizes to participants.
Then on Thursday, Oct. 28, the network will be hosting a “Say Goodnight to Breast Cancer” evening at the Little Beaver Cultural Centre.
Starting at 7 p.m., women are invited to come in their PJs (or not) and learn about getting a good night’s sleep, with snacks provided, as well as door prizes and other activities.
Tickets for this event cost $10 each, which are available at Shoppers Drug Mart, Pharmasave, McTaggart’s, the Northwestern Health Unit, and La Verendrye Hospital’s Administration & Outpatient services, or by calling 274-4817.