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New Cancer Screening for Dense Breasts: My Experience

Published on January 12, 2021

A few months ago, I attended a virtual talk by Leslie Ferris Yerger, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at 55, two months after an all-clear mammogram and ultrasound. She later learned that those screening tools are very unlikely to detect cancer in women with dense breasts, like her. She’s since written a memoir and is on a mission to advocate for the next generation of breast cancer screening.

Leslie urges women to know their own breast density and, if they have dense breasts, to supplement their yearly mammogram and ultrasound with additional screening like Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI). (Learn about Leslie’s personal story here and watch my interview with Leslie here.)

Curious, I looked at my last mammogram report and lo and behold, found that I was in the 10% of women who fall into Type D “extremely dense” breasts. I’d just had an all-clear mammogram and ultrasound myself, and have no family history of breast cancer, but I had also learned that the denser the breast, the higher the likelihood of getting breast cancer (regardless of cancer detection issues). So I decided to be on the safe side and get an MBI.

Unfortunately, this type of screening is not readily available; that’s why part of Leslie’s mission is helping the Mayo Clinic, which developed the MBI, to educate physicians and encourage hospitals to get the technology. Lucky for me, Florida, where I spend winters, is a state with several MBI locations, one of which is only 75 minutes from our home in Sarasota.

In order to get the testing, I needed a doctor’s order and I was surprised that my OBGYN, one of the founders of a large and well-established medical practice associated with Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, had never heard of MBI and balked at prescribing the test. She finally relented after I sent her links to the research. Luckily, my insurance covered the $500 cost of the test and I was only out $50.

The MBI took about an hour from start to finish. I’d been required to fast for 4 hours and upon arrival my arm was painlessly injected with a low-dose radioactive tracer (which “lights up” the cancer cells). Then a special gamma camera captured images while each breast was positioned between plates in the MBI machine, much like a mammogram but not squeezing as hard. The biggest difference was that each image took 10 minutes, but I was seated and chatting with the technician or watching a home improvement show on a conveniently placed TV. I snuck a selfie when I was alone to change!

Luckily, this story has a happy ending and my MBI results came back with no evidence of cancer. Still, I plan to talk to my OBGYN when I see her this spring in Chicago. I’ll tell her about my experience and I’ll urge her to learn about MBIs and consider them for other women in her practice with dense breasts.

YOUR TURN: Look at your last mammogram results and learn your breast density. If you have Type C (“heterogeneously dense”) or D (“extremely dense”) breasts, please learn about your options (check out resources here) and talk to your doctor. Don’t be afraid to be a squeaky wheel! As Leslie says, insist and persist!

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Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Empowerment Coach

I’m Hélène, the Midlife Empowerment Coach. I help women who are struggling in midlife—who wonder if their best years are behind them and what’s next for them. I show them how to put themselves first, reclaim their identity, figure out what’s next, and feel excited about their future.

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