Photo By: Eren Gknar/Special to the Town Crier
With Amy Colton, right, as inspiration, state Sen. Joe Simitian authored comprehensive breast tissue screening legislation.
If you find the right doctors, do your research and insist on knowing about your own body, you can beat breast cancer odds, according to two survivors who spoke at a recent forum.
The survivors joined a panel of experts who addressed a crowded room Oct. 29 at the launch of El Camino Hospital’s High-Risk Breast Program. El Camino’s Women’s Hospital, Genomic Medicine Institute, Cancer Center and Imaging Services collaborated on the event.
El Camino last month kicked off the comprehensive two-pronged program, the only one in Northern California. Approximately 15 doctors participate on the team.
Michele van Zuiden, executive director of the Women’s Hospital, said the first priority of the program is to identify high-risk patients – to themselves and to their physicians.
“It will all be done as part of the women’s annual mammogram visits,” she said, adding that the identification “particularly addresses a need in the community because we have a growing number of Asian women, who we know have a higher breast density than Caucasians.”
Patients will fill out a special risk assessment tool using a tablet while they wait for their appointment, and both doctor and patient will receive results within a week, van Zuiden added.
Women with dense breasts already have a risk factor, because radiologists don’t always see tumors or lesions in the tissue.
The program’s second goal is to offer expanded screening options, including the innovative 3D breast ultrasound, genetic counseling and BCRA test kits, blood kits that use DNA to analyze gene changes in BRCA1 and BRCA2, two breast cancer susceptibility genes.
Schedule your checkups
Panel participant Marcia Stein, a patient of Dr. Katherine Sutherland, medical director of the Genomic Medicine Institute, discussed the burden of knowing she carried the breast cancer gene. Many of her family members, including her mother, had died from breast cancer.
Stein and her sister discovered they had the breast cancer gene when they volunteered for a study. At 48, Stein was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was important for me to have that knowledge (early),” she said. “All my doctors were proactive. They saved my life, along with me.”
Stein credited Sutherland for helping her decide her course of treatment by walking her through all her options and ultimately recommending one.
Sutherland, who spoke later, is also a breast cancer survivor. She stressed that “most people don’t realize that the majority – 70 percent – of survivors don’t have a family history of breast cancer.”
Stein said that in addition to making physical and biological changes, she underwent emotional changes.
“I decided not to waste time,” she said. “I wanted to marry that man – I married that man.”
She also urged people to schedule and attend their medical checkups.
“If you’re scared of that diagnosis because you don’t want to hear what they have to say, honestly, you’re going to kill yourself,” Stein said. “If you think, ‘I’m going to the health food store and take vitamins and eat vegetables and that’s going to cure me’ – that’s not going to cure you.”
Expanded screening services
Another breast cancer patient, Amy Colton, formerly of Palo Alto, appeared with state Sen. Joe Simitian.
Colton shared her story of how she was diagnosed with breast cancer – after receiving seven negative results on mammogram tests. Colton, a nurse, didn’t fit any of the other risk factors. She exercises, manages her weight, doesn’t drink and has a healthy family history.
Her only risk factor was dense breast tissue, which made it difficult for doctors to read her mammograms. But no one had told her she had dense breast tissue.
Colton was instrumental in Simitian’s push to introduce SB 1538, signed this year by Gov. Jerry Brown, legislation that makes it mandatory to provide screening and additional notification services to women with dense breast tissue. Simitian said 40 percent of women undergoing mammograms in California have dense breast tissue.
For more information, visit www.elcaminohospital.org.