She got an all-clear on her mammogram and breast ultrasound. But her relief was short-lived. Within two months, Leslie Ferris Yerger was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.
How could that happen? She said the answer is important for all women to know.
It’s what everyone wants to hear after a routine screening. For Yerger, it turned out to be false peace of mind.
“My primary care said, ‘You know, you’re 55-years-old, post-menopausal, might be a good idea to get a bone scan. Just a DEXA scan,’” she said. “And that got the ball rolling because the radiologist in that DEXA scan saw something they didn’t like.”
A subsequent PET scan showed multiple lesions on her bones.
“(I) got a bone biopsy then the bone biopsy came back metastatic breast cancer and that is how we found out that I had Stage 4 breast cancer,” she said.
The wife and mother of three was confused.
“It was frustrating. And largely, I just didn’t understand. I thought, ‘How could this be?’” she said.
There’s a range when it comes to breast tissue – from fatty, which offers more contrast, to extremely dense – a cloudier image. When compared side-by-side, a lesion is easily spotted within a fattier breast. But in dense tissue, which also appears white, cancer can be camouflaged.
“Just because a woman has dense breasts doesn’t mean she is automatically offered additional screening that could find those breast cancers that might be missed,” Yerger said.
Supplemental screenings including “automated breast ultrasound,” or A-BUS, molecular breast imaging and MRI can help detect suspicious spots in patients with dense tissue. But how much is offered – and how much insurance will cover — varies across the country.
“It’s kind of a minefield out there in terms everyone knowing what they should do, what they can do,” Yerger said.
Instead of wallowing, Yerger got to work.
“That’s what I’m about now, is empowering women to understand what it is that they need to know and what they need to do to advocate for themselves.”
She founded the organization My Density Matters. Among the programs offered is helping patients understand their mammogram reports. Women with dense breast tissue are at greater risk for breast cancer.
“We have tools where they can go in a look for certain words and phrases and get the highlights of their mammogram report and take action,” she said.
And she’s partnering with other survivors to grow awareness.
Yerger, who does not have a family history of breast cancer, hopes her story sparks widespread screening changes for women with dense breast tissue.
“Until that all happens automatically, and that is going to be a while I think, women have to be empowered to take charge and ask and demand what they need,” she said.
Yerger takes daily medication and, so far, it is working to keep her cancer stable.