As Leslie Yerger took the first step in her 500-mile journey across Spain last fall, she knew she was right where she needed to be. She'd come to the start of the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (known as "The Way" by those who've done it) to be alone with her thoughts. But she had another purpose, too: raising money and awareness for molecular breast imaging research at Mayo Clinic, which had inspired Leslie's pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in northwestern Spain.
It was back in 2017 when Leslie sat in stunned silence as doctors in her home state of Illinois told her that abnormalities from what Leslie thought had been a routine bone density test led them to believe she was living with a hidden form of breast cancer. Specifically, stage IV lobular breast cancer. "It just didn't add up," Leslie tells us. "My mammograms and sonograms leading up to that point had all been clear."
The first thing Leslie did after receiving her diagnosis was schedule an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a second opinion. Doctors at Mayo confirmed the diagnosis, "but then they did so much more," Leslie tells us. Including scheduling a PET scan to better understand the extent of her disease.
Leslie also started reading about molecular breast imaging, a test used extensively at Mayo that, when combined with a mammogram, "detects more breast cancers in women with dense breast tissue than a mammogram alone," according to MayoClinic.org. "I have dense breasts, as many women do, and the mammograms and ultrasounds I had leading up to my diagnosis had all failed to detect my cancer," Leslie tells us. "I thought, 'This technology may have helped find my cancer earlier. This is what we all need. Why don't more women know about this?'" Leslie says.
She set out to change that. "I thought the walk could be my way of helping other women become more familiar with it to hopefully ensure what happened to me doesn't happen to other women," she says.
Unlike conventional breast imaging techniques such as mammography and ultrasound, molecular breast imaging "exploits the different behavior of tumors relative to background tissue through the use of small semiconductor-based gamma cameras to image the breast following injection of a radiotracer that tumors readily absorb," according to this article in Forefront, the online magazine of Mayo Clinic's Cancer Center. The result is a "functional image of the breast that can detect tumors not seen on mammography."
As her treatment continues, Leslie is doing all she can to ensure more women get access to functional cancer-detecting imaging by raising awareness and funding for molecular breast imaging at Mayo Clinic. In the days and months leading up to her pilgrimage across Spain, Leslie raised more than $100,000 to help advance molecular breast imaging research.
It's a contribution that the study's coordinator Deborah Rhodes, M.D., says is most helpful. "Leslie has the most extraordinary determination to educate women about breast density and to help them avoid a delay in breast cancer detection due to density," Dr. Rhodes tells us.
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