One in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is the second-most-common cancer in American women, surpassed only by skin cancers. The American population includes more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors.
Mary Washington Healthcare (MWHC) takes a comprehensive and compassionate approach to guiding women and their loved ones through the process of detecting, treating and surviving a disease that affects so many American women. This approach can be found throughout the MWHC Regional Cancer Center, which takes a holistic approach to treatment for all kinds of cancers.
As a Cancer Nurse Navigator at the MWHC Regional Cancer Center, Ashley Sisson works with patients to take the overwhelm out of treatment. From helping arrange appointments, to finding transportation, to connecting patients with a free therapist who can help them process the emotions surrounding a cancer diagnosis and treatment, her goal is to reduce stress, and to combat fear with knowledge.
“We are there as a resource throughout the entire process,” Sisson said. “Whether you have questions, concerns or just need to talk things out, your navigator is there to help you figure out the pieces to the puzzle.”
Screening is essential
Early detection is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against breast cancer. Mary Washington Healthcare recommends that women begin scheduling yearly mammograms at age 40. Women with a family history of breast cancer, or who have had breast issues in the past, can schedule a baseline mammogram as early as age 35. Women with a first-degree relative (parent, full sibling or child) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer are advised to get their first baseline mammogram when they are 10 years younger than the age at which their relative was diagnosed. So if your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, you should come in for a baseline mammogram at 31.
At the Imaging Center for Women, radiologists use 3D mammography, also known as tomosynthesis, to detect cancers as small as 4 millimeters. This is important, because research has found that when breast cancers are detected at a size of 10 millimeters or smaller (the diameter of a Cheerio), they respond better to treatment. While self-breast exams are a regular practice that can alert you to changes in the way your breasts are feeling, they typically detect tumors on average that are 2.5 cm or larger.
While some women can be anxious about their first mammogram, Sisson says the process is quick and easy. She said some women come in with their sisters or girlfriends and make a day of it, with lunch out or a manicure afterward.
“It’s the best detection method we have,” she said. “Don’t be scared to come get it. We are here for you, and have resources to support you if you need them. The earlier you catch something, the better your chances are for treatment options and survival.”
While all diagnostic mammograms (those that are performed to investigate a specific symptom, or to follow up on something seen in a screening) are performed at the Imaging Center for Women on the campus of Mary Washington Hospital, regular screening mammograms are also available at Medical Imaging of Lee’s Hill, Medical Imaging at King George and Imaging Center for Women at North Stafford locations.
Sisson emphasizes that women should not shy away from scheduling regular screenings out of fear of rising Covid-19 cases in the community. Medical Imaging of Fredericksburg, LLC imaging centers are taking all necessary precautions to prevent spread of the disease, and masks are required for all appointments.
Care is all-encompassing
A breast cancer diagnosis comes with many emotions. At the same time, patients may have to manage appointments with multiple medical professionals, financial and practical concerns at the same time. This is why Mary Washington Healthcare created its Cancer Nurse Navigator program. Navigators are registered nurses whose job is to help patients through every step of cancer treatment.
“This is so important because we know that your mind and body are so connected,” Sisson said.
Navigators help patients to always know what the next step in their care is. In addition, their support includes:
- Managing appointments and coordinating care, as cancer patients may need to see multiple oncologists.
- Helping to arrange transportation when needed.
- Answering questions about insurance, and finding community resources when there are gaps in coverage.
- A licensed family and marriage therapist is available to talk with the patient and her loved ones.
- Connecting patients with the cancer support groups organized by Mary Washington Healthcare. These groups are meeting virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Providing access to a registered dietitian who can provide nutritional advice.
- Connecting patients with genetic counseling.
- Access to a bra fitter and resources to help find wigs.
- Help with questions that arise during treatment.
In addition, the Regional Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Services provides further support, connecting patients with yoga classes, massage therapy, reiki and other resources to support physical and mental wellness.
“We are a resource for anything oncology-related,” Sisson said. “We are care coordinators.”