July 21, 2018

A Small Bump in the Road: Early Detection was Key in Debbie Ellis’ Fight Against Breast Cancer

By Ronnie Musselwhite

They’re four words no woman ever wants to hear: You have breast cancer. Unfortunately, doctors utter that phrase more than 330,000 times each year in the United States alone.

Debbie Ellis was on the receiving end of that all too-common refrain in June 2012. While reviewing results from her annual mammogram, a radiologist at Mission Breast Center detected a small lump in Ellis’ right breast. A biopsy later confirmed their fears: stage I breast cancer.

A State of Shock

“At first, I was in a state of shock,” said Ellis, a 62-year-old resident of Fletcher who works in medical records. “I didn’t have a history of breast cancer in my family.”

According to Helen Sandven, MD, a radiologist with Asheville Radiology and the Director of Breast Imaging for Mission Health, that’s a common misconception. Approximately 75 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no known family history. “You are still at risk even if you are not genetically predisposed. Twelve percent of women in the United States will have breast cancer in their lifetime,” said Dr. Sandven.

Looking back, Ellis realizes she “got lucky” because her cancer was diagnosed early. “I didn’t feel the lump and neither did my gynecologist [during a routine exam],” she said. “The mammogram found it.” Had Ellis not gone to Mission Breast Center for her yearly screening, the outcome may have been much different. “If we find the cancer early, treatment can be more like a bump in the road than a life-changing event,” said Dr. Sandven. “If it progresses before detection, patients face a much more difficult path to recovery.”

The Journey to Healing

The course of treatment chosen for Ellis included surgery to remove the tumor, followed by four months of chemo and seven weeks of radiation. It was an aggressive plan, necessitated by the discovery of HER2-positive cells in Ellis’ breast. Being positive for HER2 made early detection all the more important.

“It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever been through,” said Ellis, recounting her eight-month road to remission. “After all, I was staring at my own mortality.”

“At the same time, I wouldn’t let my family show sympathy because that would only make things more difficult,” she added. “So I stayed positive through the whole thing and decided I wasn’t going to let it beat me.”

“I didn’t feel the lump and neither did my gynecologist… The mammogram found it.”

Throughout the journey, the team at Mission Breast Center helped and comforted Ellis. When the cancer was discovered, she — like all patients at the clinic diagnosed with cancer — was assigned a nurse navigator to answer questions, provide reassurance and accompany her through the process.

“It’s an expense a smaller breast program couldn’t absorb,” said Dr. Sandven of the nurse navigator program. “We’ve chosen to do so because it helps deliver better care and provides a more supported experience.”

During follow-up visits, Ellis was treated with the same care and compassion, which she freely admits helped allay the anxiety that she felt — and continues to feel — at each appointment while waiting for results.

“Every time I went [to Mission Breast Center], the staff was awesome,” Ellis said. “Everyone was very encouraging and made me feel completely comfortable. That makes all the difference. They all go above and beyond in the way they interact and communicate with you.”

Patient-Centered Care

Therein lies the foundation upon which the Mission Breast Center is built: a patient-centered approach to early breast cancer detection. Delivering that level of care is no small feat, particularly considering more than 40,000 women are screened each year at the clinic. Even so, Dr. Sandven and her entire team are committed to doing just that.

“Our goal is for every patient to feel as though they had a caring, supportive experience each time they come,” said Dr. Sandven. “We have a very specialized group of breast imagers and an incredibly skilled, caring staff. Patients can have confidence in our extensive experience and know they’re getting the best care possible.”

That dedication, coupled with what Dr. Sandven calls “a history of being early adopters of technology,” has established Mission Breast Center as one of the southeast’s most respected breast specialty centers. In fact, the group was one of the first 15 healthcare providers in the nation chosen to offer contrasted mammography and was the second hospital east of the Mississippi River to purchase a new ergonomically designed 3D gantry that makes the exam more comfortable for patients.

Additionally, Mission Breast Center was the first to introduce whole breast ultrasound (ABUS) to the area. “We’re always evolving,” said Dr. Sandven. “We have our finger on the pulse of technology, and Mission Health has been very proactive about investing in cutting-edge equipment when it becomes available.”

Mission Breast Center is the only practice in the region currently utilizing Volpara software, which allows radiologists to better evaluate imaging quality and positioning. This information is then used to refine the skills of the imaging technologists and, ultimately, detect abnormalities with more precision.

Not surprisingly, the capital and human resources required to support the services and purchase the technology that separates Mission Health from other healthcare providers is substantial. But that’s of little concern to Ellis, who said, “I would highly recommend Mission Breast Center to anyone, any time because of the level of care and quality of treatment they’d receive.”

Helen Sandven, MD, is a radiologist with Asheville Radiology and the Director of Breast Imaging for Mission Health.

Mission Breast Center provides state-of-the-art breast imaging utilizing 3D mammography, contrast mammography, whole breast ultrasound (ABUS) and diagnostic ultrasound. Mission Breast Center is accredited by the American College of Radiology as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence. To schedule an exam at the Mission Breast Center, visit missionhealth.org/imaging or call 828-213-9729.