October 15, 2020

The Importance of Mammograms: One Woman’s Story

Lori Smith

Lori Smith

By Jennifer Bringle

Lori Smith never thought she’d be the one receiving bad news after a mammogram. After years of helping area women get screening mammograms through her job as regional radiology manager for Angel Medical Center and Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, she knew there was always a chance an exam might reveal an abnormality. But Smith never anticipated she would be one of those uncovering something otherwise unseen.

“I always thought it would be someone else, not me,” she said. “It’s one of those things you never really expect to hear.”

In early 2019 after an abnormality was detected during her annual mammogram, Smith went through a battery of tests, including a biopsy and MRI before being diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ breast cancer. Ductal carcinoma in situ refers to cancer that forms inside the milk ducts in the breast, but hasn’t invaded the surrounding tissue.

Smith said her tumor was sizeable, but because of the way it grew inside the duct, she couldn’t detect it from the outside. “It definitely wasn’t small, but I still couldn’t feel it,” she said.

According to Rachel McEachern, MD, a fellowship-trained Breast Radiologist and the Co-Director of Breast Imaging of Asheville Radiology Associates, that’s why patients getting their annual mammograms are so critical. “Mammograms are important because approximately 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life,” she said. “Mammograms are the only statistically proven exam to reduce mortality in women, particularly those doing mammograms annually after age 40.”

Dr. McEachern said it’s important to make mammograms an annual routine, as yearly scans make it easier for radiologists to detect even small abnormalities. “We know we’re best at diagnosing cancer when we see women every year,” she said. “It allows us to look for interval change and do it in a reasonable window of time. We can catch the cancer earlier.”

3D mammography technology equips radiologists with the ability to see farther into the breast tissue, allowing them to catch areas of concern that might ordinarily go undetected. The vast majority of mammograms performed at Mission are 3D. “3D mammograms help us do a better job of detecting cancers and finding them earlier on, when they’re smaller,” said Dr. McEachern. “3D mammography allows us to see through the breast tissue and better assess things that may be hiding.”

Dr. McEachern said she’s seen a reduction in women getting their annual mammograms since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she stresses that even in a pandemic, women should not skip screenings. Mission Health’s Radiology offices are taking all the possible precautions to keep patients safe, including social distancing, wearing masks, and temperature and health screenings prior to entering the office.

“We have to continue to function, because breast cancer is not going to stop,” said Dr. McEachern. “It’s important to realize this pandemic will be with us for a while, and we have had to figure out how to responsibly operate within the confines that COVID-19 has put on us while doing the best to get patients in, screened and diagnosed.”

And Smith agrees. Since her diagnosis, she has undergone a mastectomy and reconstruction, and is currently cancer free. Working in radiology, she was always a believer in mammograms, but now she knows firsthand how they can save lives. “I personally feel like having a mammogram every year is a woman’s best chance of finding this early so you can get it taken care of at an early stage, and in turn, increase your chances of survival,” Smith said.

Rachel McEachern, MD, is a fellowship-trained Breast Radiologist and the Co-Director of Breast Imaging at Asheville Radiology Associates.

To learn more about the Mission Breast Cancer Program and to schedule an appointment with a doctor, call 828-213-2500 or visit missionhealth.org/pink.