Leslie Anderson, 40, is no stranger to the world of breast care. She trained as a radiologic technologist and MRI technologist at UVA Health, where she then worked for more than 17 years in outpatient imaging, helping to develop the breast screening program and care for breast cancer patients and others.
But when it was time for Leslie to schedule her routine mammogram, she felt a feeling of urgency that she couldn’t explain.
“I heard that inner voice that speaks to us,” says Leslie. “It told me to schedule a mammogram and to not delay it.”
Current recommendations advise average-risk adults to get annual mammograms starting at age 40. Just six days after her 40th birthday, Leslie went to the University of Virginia’s Breast Care Center for what she thought would be an uneventful screening.
“Okay, I’m going to get this done,” she remembers thinking. “Check the box, move on. Yay me for hitting the 40 Club!”
The day after, she received a message to come back in for additional pictures for magnification views. When she returned, she met with Breast Care Center radiologist Dr. Carrie Rochman. Dr. Rochman told Leslie that there were some concerns that warranted a biopsy.
Five days after Leslie’s initial mammogram, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“You could have bought me for a penny,” says Leslie. “I was like, ‘Are you serious? I’m 40 years old and I have breast cancer: What do you mean?’”
Once breast cancer is diagnosed, speed is of the essence to prevent the disease’s spread.
“It’s like, ‘OK, we just start checking boxes and we move forward and treat,” says Leslie.
She booked an appointment for the following week with her requested surgical oncologist Dr. David Brenin. That appointment was held at UVA Cancer Center Augusta Clinic, closer to Leslie’s home in Waynesboro.
Leslie was initially diagnosed with two centimeters of ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, an early form of breast cancer contained within the milk duct. The initial treatment plan she discussed with Dr. Brenin was a lumpectomy – removing a portion of the breast tissue – along with radiation therapy.
But Leslie felt like she wanted more information.
“When I was talking to Dr. Brenin, again, that internal voice said I need to ask for an MRI.” she says. “He said, ‘Absolutely, not a problem.’”
In the meantime, Leslie was scheduled for genetic testing. It confirmed what she had thought – there were no genetic indications of an increased breast cancer risk.
Later, she got her MRI, for nothing if not peace of mind. But when she received the results, “My heart just sank,” says Leslie.
‘An Important Catch’
The scan revealed that the cancer had spread much more than they had thought. It wasn’t just two centimeters in length; it was 10 centimeters, extending almost all the way to Leslie’s chest wall.
It would have been nearly impossible to detect without imaging, despite Leslie’s regular breast self-examinations.
“I still did routine checks every month, just being a woman,” says Leslie. “But this is not something that I would have felt until it had already escaped.”
Less than six weeks after her initial visit, she underwent a mastectomy – surgical removal of the breast – and oncoplastic reduction on the other side. It was a difficult time, but made easier by the people caring for her.
In addition, tumor pathology tests showed the true extent of the disease.
“It wasn’t just DCIS,” says Leslie, “but it was actually microinvasive carcinoma” — a rare catch that can develop into invasive carcinoma and spread to other parts of the body. As a result, Leslie’s staging was upgraded.
“Really, in all honesty, I cannot express the gratitude that I have for the team and the care that they provided me,” says Leslie. “I had phenomenal care from everyone there at UVA – from plastic surgery with Dr. Christopher Campbell’s team, with Dr. David Brenin and the oncology team; and then just recently joining my care team the medical oncology team with Dr. Christiana Brenin and Dr. Paul Mike Marshall. The radiology family at UVA, they take care to a different level to ensure that women get what they need.
“I even had some post-op complications and I MyChart-ed the resident on call at like 11 p.m. on a Friday night. I was like ‘Hey, can you call me? I have this problem,’ and immediately within 20 minutes: ‘OK, what’s the problem?’”
‘You Have a Support System’
“Breast cancer is super scary,” Leslie says. “It just takes the wind right out of your sail immediately.”
It’s only three months after her surgery. But Leslie is back at work and enjoying spending time with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 9. It’s a long road to recovery, but she’s grateful for the voice in her head telling her to schedule her mammogram – and hopes others follow her lead.
“Make sure that you follow up timely with your screening exams,” she says. “Because had I not, I would be having a very different conversation with my children and my husband and my family.”
And while Leslie knows how difficult being diagnosed with breast cancer can be, there’s support all around. For Leslie, that meant gaining strength and hope from reflecting on her favorite bible verses (Joshua 1:9 and James 1:2-4). But it also meant finding hope through others: not just the medical professionals who deliver care, but also a whole different community to lean on.
“I can say that from the time that I let people know that I was diagnosed, there were many people who came forward to say: ‘Leslie, I’ve been in your shoes and I’m here to support you,’” she said. “So where it feels like you may be all alone, you have a support system who can be there to carry you when you need it.”