CLEVELAND – If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you want to know you have options when it comes to treatment. No one knows that better than Gwen Fisher and her mom, Patricia McGlothen.
Both survivors, the mother-daughter duo is adamant about advocating for research and early detection.
“I had mammograms starting at 30 years old,” Fisher said. “Every year. I was very diligent.”
Fisher, like many women, has dense breast tissue, which makes mammograms more difficult to interpret. For that reason, her doctor suggested an ultrasound, which revealed a cluster of tumors in the front of her breast. A follow-up biopsy showed signs of early-stage cancer, and doctors recommended a lumpectomy. However, through yet another test, the radiologists and her surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic saw something they weren’t expecting.
“She saw a shadow and said she wanted to have a breast MRI done,” Fisher said. “Twenty minutes later she called and said, ‘I’m sorry, we have to do a single mastectomy’.”
The MRI showed Fisher had a nine-centimeter tumor near her chest wall.
Considering the plethora of tests that hadn’t caught it before, Fisher is thankful for the MRI.
“I don’t think they would have found [the tumor],” she said.
In her case, the test was covered by insurance, but that isn’t always a given for patients. That’s something she said needs to change.
“I think MRIs could really prevent a lot in women,” she said.
Doctors say that’s really a personal choice, but one many women opt for. In fact, many hospitals, like University Hospitals, offer a “self-pay MRI” that doesn’t go through insurance. It’s a $250 out-of-pocket expense for the patient.
Dr. Holly Marshall specializes in radiology-breast Imaging and radiology-diagnostic radiology at UH. She said it should be a conversation between a woman and her doctor.
“[University Hospitals] has been offering it since 2019. We’re continually watching to make sure we don’t have a backlog,” she said. “We’re continually opening spots throughout the UH system because it’s a very popular study that a lot of women choose to have.”
Although many women say having the test is a safeguard and give them peace of mind, it can also have the opposite effect.
Marshall said although the MRI scan itself is harmless, it could result in unnecessary follow-up testing for patients.
“It’s a very sensitive exam,” she said. “It picks up a lot of findings that might not necessarily be cancer.”
Fisher said the extra tests are worth it if there’s a chance you can catch the disease early.
“The MRI probably saved my life,” she said.
Fisher went on to have surgery and reconstruction. The procedures went well, but recovery was difficult. Her mother, Patricia McGlothen took care of her for the first ten days.
“She waited on me hand and foot,” Fisher smiled. “She cooked for me. She stripped my drains. She knew exactly what I was going through.”
McGlothen herself had been there more than three decades earlier when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 51. She had a tumor removed, then chemo and radiation. Then she herself became part of the research.
“I was on an experimental medicine once the chemo was done. I began that regimen that lasted I believe five years,” she said.
In 1991, there weren’t nearly as many options for treatment, so McGlothen was happy to help advance the research.
“When they asked me, it was about my family because I had two daughters,” she said. “I had no hesitation when they asked me to join the study.”
McGlothen figured even if the results didn’t help her, they’d help someone somewhere down the road. Turns out, she was right, years later with Fisher’s diagnosis.
Today both women are doing great and want to advocate for more research and push women to trust their own instincts and be aggressive.
“Get the checkups,” Fisher said. “Try to push for the MRIs. Because [my nine-centimeter tumor] did not pick up from ultrasounds. It did not pick up from my mammograms.”
“That breast is not who you are,” McGlothen said. “It doesn’t change who you are once it’s gone.”
This year’s Fox 8 Fox Trot benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, whose mission is to come up with new treatments and advancements. Sign up to participate in the one-mile walk or 5K race here.