For some people, a cancer diagnosis feels like the end. For Leslie, it was a chance to make a difference while funding research to help others.
Leslie Yerger had gone for a routine annual checkup. Now, just 55 years old and feeling completely normal, she was told something looked abnormal in her baseline bone density scan. That led to more tests, more specialists, and a bone biopsy. She learned she had breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones. Stage IV.
Healthnetwork connected her to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and her diagnosis was confirmed.
Leslie returned to Mayo Clinic for a customized plan and worked with Dr. Deborah Rhodes, who said something Leslie will never forget: “You are the woman I’ve dedicated the last ten years of my career to.”
One of the most confusing things for Leslie was that her diagnosis came soon after an “all clear” mammogram and ultrasound. Leslie then had thought that at least she “knew” she didn’t have breast cancer.
Unfortunately, Mayo Clinic physicians found a breast tumor the size of an egg.
For women with dense breast tissue, there’s less than a 50 percent chance that a mammogram will find a tumor. That’s because tumors and dense breast tissue both appear white on a mammogram.
Rhodes helped develop a new method, Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI), which is far more effective at detecting tumors in women with dense breasts than standard mammography alone. The MBI unit is now FDA approved and commercially available, and all Mayo Clinic locations use them as standard supplemental screening for women with dense breasts. However, MBI is not yet widely available.
In 2018, Leslie embarked on the Frances Way, a 500- mile segment of the ancient spiritual passage in Europe called the Camino de Santiago. [Legatus will host its own El Camino Pilgrimage in April 2021.]
She walked, she said, because “I needed to reckon with not knowing the future.” But mostly she walked for the 40,000 women who die from breast cancer annually in the U.S.
Leslie kept a blog while walking the Camino. On October 1, the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she wrote: “My real why [for walking] is about kids without moms, grandkids without grandmas, and widowers without wives. It’s about careers unfinished, potentials not met, and dreams not realized.”
Through private donations and a matching grant, Leslie raised more than $105,000 to support Density MATTERS, Mayo Clinic’s multisite trial headed by Rhodes and her team.
“Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI) needs to be available to more women with dense breast tissue, so that more cancers can be found earlier, when they are at the curable stage,” she says. “This was something I could do that would help other women, if only in a small way.”
KATE MARTIN is director of marketing for Healthnetwork. She has worked within the company since 2003, formerly as writer and medical coordinator.