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Navigating the Path to Breast Cancer Care

Did you know? Five-year survival rates for breast cancer are at nearly 100% when detected in early stages.

Amy Mace snowboarding (smaller)When it comes to an adventure, Amy Mace of Lowell is never one to back down. Give her a snow-covered mountain and she'll speed down on her snowboard. Put her on a bike, she'll crank out 20 miles. Breast cancer would be no exception.

Mace was 41 in the autumn of 2008 when a routine mammogram at Lowell General's Women's Imaging Center in Chelmsford detected something that hadn't appeared the year before. She was promptly scheduled for a breast ultrasound to get a closer look. When the radiologist found abnormalities in both breasts, he introduced her to Lowell General Hospital's certified breast health navigator. Meeting together in a quiet room, she helped calm Mace's fears and answer the many questions swirling through her mind. They also discussed the next steps and what she could expect.

A Breast Health Navigator is a nurse who is specially trained to coordinate the clinical, educational and supportive needs of patients who are facing a breast abnormality or recent breast cancer diagnosis. She ensures that a woman has someone to help navigate the path to care ­guiding her through tests, procedures, emotions, support and many other aspects.

For Mace, a breast MRI confirmed a cancerous 1.5cm lump in her right breast and a pre-cancerous growth in her left. The MRI provided the surgeon a three-dimensional view for planning how to best remove the lumps. "I wanted to know everything and anything I could about my condition, my options, what I could do, and what I should expect. Both my mom and grandmother are breast cancer survivors so I had a lot of questions," says Mace. Eleven days after her surgery she was snowboarding with her long-time pal, Kevin McGoniagle, on opening day at Sugarbush ­as they do together every year (see above photo).

Amy Mace with CC teamMace celebrating at TeamWalk 2009 with members of her radiation therapy team: Thomas Schmidt, RT(T) on left and Jeffrey Wardle, BSRT(R,T) on right.

Having someone to coordinate breast cancer treatment and ensure that a woman and her loved ones understand the steps, options and results bring peace-of-mind as well as the proper care. After surgery, Mace finished the snowboard season and started radiation treatment at the Cancer Center at Lowell General Hospital. She was thrilled to learn that the genetic testing they performed came back negative and additional biopsy testing from the surgery revealed a very low likelihood of reoccurrence of her cancer. "Sue gave me every bit of help I needed. If I was stuck on something, she got me through it and whenever I phoned, it was as if I was the only patient in the world. She was such a positive influence in my experience with breast cancer."

While Mace relied on the assistance of the breast health navigator for about 6 months, for the majority of women, an abnormality found on a mammogram is not cancer. Sharon Dubois of Billerica met the breast health navigator immediately after her digital mammography. "The shock of hearing that something wasn't right had my heart sink. Having the radiologist bring in the breast health navigator helped me to process what was happening and answer the many questions I had."

Dubois would need a needle biopsy to better identify the nature of the abnormality and she was scared. Dubois remembers, "Mentally, the breast health navigator helped me to prepare for the biopsy and together with the radiologist, made sure I was going to get through it okay. The emotional support was incredible and really made the whole experience a positive one for me." It was the breast health navigator who called to be sure she got the good news that the test showed no cancer. "She didn't want me to have to wait any longer than needed to know what my results were."

Both Mace and Dubois have the same message for their women friends and family, "Get your digital mammogram! No one should be afraid to move forward to do the right thing. If there is any problem or glitch along the way, there is someone at Lowell General to help you get through it ­you won't be
alone."

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