Mary Zendajas felt stunned when her younger-by-a-year sister, Rosie, got slammed with a breast cancer diagnosis last February.

It took Zendajas’ breath away. The reality came tumbling in. Her sister. Cancer. Breast removal. Chemotherapy. Radiation.

Zendajas, 45, knew she could be next.

She also knew that she should get a mammogram. But the logistics get in the way. Zendajas, 2012 Ms. Wheelchair California, needs a wheelchair accessible imaging machine, not readily available near her hometown of Long Beach.

So when Zendajas received an email from the Ms. Wheelchair America organization that Spectrum Health would offer mammogram screenings for contestants during this week’s Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she felt a huge weight had been lifted.

‘Super excited’

“I got super excited knowing they had these types of machines,” Zendajas said, sitting in her electric wheelchair in the hallway of Spectrum Health Cancer Center’s Betty Ford Breast Care Services at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital Wednesday afternoon. “My sister was sadly, or maybe fortunately, diagnosed early. But it has taken a toll on our family and has switched my mind to be more proactive and share the importance of having a mammogram for all women.”

Zendajas, who has polio, said she used to have a wheelchair that moved up and down which allowed her to get a mammogram with traditional stand-up devices. But her current wheelchair doesn’t.

Even though she recently noticed small lumps in her left breast, getting a mammogram proved difficult.

I’m really honored to be considered among this group of women who are here. It’s stiff competition. Win or lose, I feel like I just accomplished a major life activity by getting my mammogram.

Nadia Ibrahim
2016 Ms. Wheelchair Maryland

“I started noticing stuff in my own breast,” she said. “That’s what made me concerned. She was diagnosed in February. I should have done this in March. Or even February. I think for me, part of it was the fear of being diagnosed even though early detection is key. I can’t stress that enough.”

Mammography technologists Rhonda Kiel and Penny Sugiyami guided Zendajas toward the digital imaging machine.

“You’re going to want to move the chair in more,” Kiel told her. “Now we’ll just have you lean forward with your upper body. Doing OK?”

Zendajas affirmed.

“Now chin up nice and high,” Kiel instructed. “Let that shoulder relax just a little. Chin up a little bit more.”

Kiel and Sugiyami ducked behind the safety glass, activated the machine and repeated the maneuvering procedure several more times.

“That was pretty good,” Zendajas said after all images were completed. “It wasn’t very painful. Having this here is just amazing. When the email went out about this, I was the first one to say yes. I’m very thankful for this opportunity.”

Identifying a need

Shelly Loose, Ms. Wheelchair America president, posted on her personal Facebook page when she had her recent mammogram. Loose suffered a spinal cord injury almost three decades ago. Another Ms. Wheelchair of America representative expressed her surprise that Loose was able to get a mammogram in a wheelchair.

Loose said she learned that many women with disabilities in rural areas don’t have access to facilities with accessible imaging machines. Loose contacted the Susan G. Komen Foundation to see if wheelchair accessible mammogram appointments could be arranged during the August Ms. Wheelchair America pageant at Grand Rapids’ Amway Grand Plaza.

Elaine Bower, director of Spectrum Health Breast Care Services, said Komen reached out to her.

“I said, ‘Of course,’” Bower said. “We’re always interested in increasing convenience and access for all patients.”

Spectrum Health is screening about a dozen contestants who signed up for the service at three Breast Care Services sites.

“Our equipment has always been wheelchair accessible,” Bower said.

In a sense, Spectrum Health is providing a similar service as Ms. Wheelchair America—focusing on the inside, and not the outside. Spectrum Health on breast tissue and Ms. Wheelchair America on the inner beauty, advocacy and community service strengths of contestants versus physical beauty as in more traditional pageants.

“I think when people hear Ms. Wheelchair America, they think of a beauty pageant,” said Nadia Ibrahim, 2016 Ms. Wheelchair Maryland. “The selection is made based on leadership and advocacy skills. The role is really one of education and outreach and advocacy.”

The stars align

Ibrahim, 45, who has cerebral palsy, shared that she has a personal and family history of cysts and fibrous breast tissue.

“Not all places are set up for this,” Ibrahim said after maneuvering her electric wheelchair into position for imaging. “The other challenge for me is I have to travel quite far to find one that’s accessible. If you factor in all those things, it’s challenging. All the stars have to align.”

The stars hadn’t aligned recently, so before Wednesday, it had been three or four years since Ibrahim’s last mammogram.

“I knew that it needed to be done so I wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity,” she said. “I am very grateful. Thank you to Spectrum Health and everyone else involved in making this happen.”

Ibrahim is competing with 26 other women Saturday night for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America 2017.

By getting her mammogram during this week’s pageant events, she said she’s a winner even if she doesn’t walk out of Amway Grand’s Ambassador Ballroom with a crown on her head.

“If I happen to win, I won’t be disappointed,” she said. “Regardless, I’m really honored to be considered among this group of women who are here. It’s stiff competition. Win or lose, I feel like I just accomplished a major life activity by getting my mammogram.”