The number of breast cancer and cervical cancer cases is high and awareness is still poor—leading often to very late detection, and high mortality. According to 2012 statistics of the World Health Organization (WHO), India, China and the US collectively account for almost one-third of the global breast cancer burden. In 2012 alone, 144,937 new cases of breast cancer were detected in India. But the worse news is, more women in the subcontinent die of breast cancer; for every two women newly diagnosed with breast cancer in India, one is dying (compared to one in every four in China and one in five-six in the US).

The numbers are stark in the case of cervical cancer too. It kills about 72,000 women in India every year, more than 26% of the 275,000 deaths worldwide, says a May report, based on WHO numbers, by US-based research and advocacy group Cervical Cancer-Free Coalition.

Nowhere is the need for better facilities more pronounced than in semi-urban and rural areas where women are often reluctant to visit a clinic for reasons varying from financial constraints to outright shyness. Designed as a public-private partnership (PPP), the Asha Jyoti programme is part of the Women’s Healthcare Outreach Mobile programme and aims to combine government healthcare practices with technology innovations from the private sector. As part of this initiative, Rad-Aid International, Inc., a US-based non-profit that works to improve the provision of radiology and healthcare services in the developing world, helps reach out to the right people; Philips Healthcare, part of Philips India Ltd, provides the technology (financial assistance, machines and complete maintenance of the equipment and the van); and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (Pgimer), Chandigarh, provides medical expertise and therapeutic care.

Operational since May 2012, Asha Jyoti is a free cancer screening programme for women aged 30-60 (mammograms usually begin after the age of 40 unless some abnormality shows up) and aims at early detection of breast cancer, cervical cancer and osteoporosis.

Philips has fitted the mobile outreach van with imaging technology, including a digital mammography machine for breast cancer screening, video colposcopy for cervical cancer screening and a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scan for osteoporosis. The van was stationed at Pgimer for six months as a pilot programme. Once the systems were in place and the doctors trained, it was taken to rural and semi-urban Punjab and Haryana. Four doctors (three radiologists and one gynaecologist) travel with the van and a breast surgeon, a pathologist, a medical physician and an orthopaedic at Pgimer are available for referrals. They are called if need be to the van.

“We have organized a total of 40 camps in and around Chandigarh and in places like Ambala, Fatehgarh Sahib and Narayangarh in Punjab and Haryana. A total of 4,054 women as of 19 January 2014 have been tested and nine cases of breast cancer, two cases of cervical cancer have been detected. We have also diagnosed 15% of women suffering from osteoporosis and 34% suffering from osteopenia," says Niranjan Khandelwal, professor and head, department of radio diagnostics, Pgimer, who spearheads the programme.

The women get their test results in 7-10 days; the results are posted to their addresses or sent to a central pre-decided place in the village (to an NGO or the local doctor, for example). Then, if they need further treatment, Pgimer provides free follow-up, including a biopsy and positron emission tomography–computed tomography scan, and complete treatment at a subsidized cost. “We follow up on all the cases where an abnormality is detected and try to provide the best assistance possible to all of them. They are given the option to get the treatment done at Pgimer, and if they opt for other private facilities, then too the team stays in touch via phone/email to track that they are getting the right treatment," says Dr Khandelwal.

“We are proactively speaking to the health secretaries of different states. Some state governments have expressed the desire to have these vans attached to their state-level medical colleges and regional cancer centres," says Chhitiz Kumar, director, government business and PPP, Philips Healthcare.

Dr Khandelwal feels this programme, which uniquely integrates women’s health services and a partnership between the private sector and a non-profit organization, can help make a difference. “We hope that more state governments will follow this model which will help treat cancer more efficiently."