In 2014, Michelle Di Tomaso was in her doctor's office after work when she heard the words she'll never forget.
"She just turned to me and said, 'You have breast cancer,'" Di Tomaso recalled.
The news came as a surprise, given that the Vancouver woman had undergone regular mammograms over the past three years. The doctors, she learned, had missed the cancer.
Every woman has different degrees of fatty tissue and dense tissue in their breasts. The dense tissue — made up of milk glands, ducts and supportive tissue — is described that way because it looks white on a mammogram, which can camouflage cancer.
"It's like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm," said Dr. Paula Gordon, a clinical professor of radiology at the University of British Columbia.
Starting in mid-October, women in B.C. will get breast density information with their mammogram results, making it the first province to voluntarily share that data, said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Since the '80s, radiologists have noted breast density. But that information has only been available by request through the province's breast screening program.
Colin Mar, the program's medical director, said that breast density is one in a number of risk factors for cancer.
Dr. Gordon said women who know whether their breast tissue is dense can decide whether to seek supplementary screenings such as ultrasounds, which can catch cancer that a mammogram might have missed.
After learning of her cancer, she went through an agonizing set of procedures: a double mastectomy and seven rounds of chemotherapy.
She went on to co-found the non-profit organization Dense Breasts Canada and has lobbied provincial governments to make it mandatory for health authorities to share breast density information with patients and family doctors.
"We hope that the hard part is done and that the rest of the provinces will do the right thing," Di Tomaso said on Saturday.
About one in eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the province of B.C.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer found in women in B.C., with about 3,500 women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis each year.
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At 31 years old, Katy Nelson was taking a shower one day when she noticed an abnormal lump in her breast.
Her husband, Jason, encouraged her to make an appointment with her doctor, even though she didn’t have health insurance at the time. She walked away from the appointment with a script for a mammogram but few options for how to pay for it.
“We’re walking out to the car and a nurse came running out and gave us a pamphlet about the Race Against Breast Cancer,” Nelson said.
The Race Against Breast Cancer is a nonprofit that provides women in Shawnee County and the surrounding area with financial assistance to pay for screening and diagnostic mammograms. To date, RABC has funded over 9,000 mammograms in more than 10 northeast Kansas counties. The organization’s mission is to improve health through education, access, early detection, screening and breast health awareness.
Nelson had a mammogram on a Tuesday, and by Thursday, the mother of four young children was in surgery to remove a fast-growing, aggressive strain of cancer, followed by experimental chemotherapy treatment to keep the cancer at bay.
“You go to collections to pay for your medication to keep you alive and raise your four children and be a wife to your husband,” Nelson said. “The hospitals say they will put you on a plan, but who can afford $900 a month in medical bills? I would have had insurance at that point if I’d been able to afford that.”
Jason Nelson owns Collaborative Technologies, a computer support and services business in Topeka. Small business owners often find it difficult to carry health coverage while getting their businesses off the ground because of the high cost of private insurance. The RABC eased a part of the Nelsons’ financial burden and made possible the mammogram needed to catch Katy Nelson’s cancer early.
“At first, I was embarrassed that I needed help,” she said. “I never told my story until about four years ago when I ran into a woman at church, and she was really down because she was getting ready to have breast surgery. It was the first time I’d ever told anyone my story.”
Nelson felt empowered to continue sharing her story after seeing how it helped other women with breast cancer feel less alone. Despite fighting cancer twice more since her initial diagnosis in 2007, Nelson has worked tirelessly to promote breast cancer fundraising and education.
She began volunteering with the RABC eight years ago and has served on the board of directors for six of those years. This year, she is organizing the 27th annual 5K Run/Walk and Pink Out Fun Run at Topeka West High School, which will be held Sept. 28 and 29.
“The first year I did the race, it took me three hours to finish,” said Nelson, who was still undergoing treatment at the time.
With so many organizations dedicated to raising funds for cancer research, she was drawn to the RABC for a different reason.
“I really looked for an organization that 100 percent of what was raised stayed local. If we aren’t helping our community, who are we helping?” she said.
The Race Against Breast Cancer is self-supporting and raises funds through charitable contributions from corporations, businesses and individuals, as well as fundraising events like Meals for Mammograms, the RABC 5K Run/Walk each September and a bowl-athon held in June. One hundred percent of money raised stays in northeast Kansas to help men and women in need of no-cost mammograms and to educate the community on breast health.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” Nelson said. “Sometimes you just need education. Most women have lumps in their breast, and most women don’t know the difference between a malignant or benign tumor. A lot of people don’t realize that there really is help out there.”
Nelson is now cancer-free, but she remembers a time when she was ready to give up. After multiple surgeries and energy-draining treatments, it was difficult to see any end in sight.
“My youngest looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I need you.’ I’ve got four kids and two grandkids. It’s really important to me to be here and to be healthy,” she said. “I have a whole different attitude about life. If I want to do it, I’m going to do it. I’ve been kayaking and hiking. I want to be healthy. I want to survive.”