Special to the Citizen
Agnes Jones is thankful.
A native of Bostwick who now lives in Madison, she is thankful to have a wonderful husband and two amazing daughters.
She is thankful for her co-workers at Morgan County Primary School, where she has taught for 25 years.
And she is thankful for St. Mary’s new 3D mammography technology, which detected a tiny invasive cancer in her breast.
“I’m so thankful it was caught early,” Agnes says. “I’m thankful I have been given an opportunity to fight this so soon, while it is most treatable.”
In March 2016, unexplainable pain in one breast began bothering her. She decided to visit her doctor. Normally, she gets a mammogram at St. Mary’s each summer, after school is out. This year, her doctor suggested she get one sooner.
“Then my doctor said, ‘St. Mary’s has a new 3D mammography system that is better at detecting cancers early. Would you like to try it?’” Agnes says. “I said, ‘Yes’.” So her doctor made an appointment for her at St. Mary’s Outpatient Radiology Center on Daniells Bridge Road.
The exam felt like 2D mammograms she had had before. It took about the same amount of time, required the same amount of compression, and used about the same amount of ionizing radiation. But instead of showing all the tissue of the breast in a single x-ray picture, the Hologic Genius 3D Mammography System took a series of images – “slices” – that are each about 1 millimeter thick. The images stack like cards in a deck, making internal structures easier to see.
Radiologists at St. Mary’s quickly found what looked like a tumor. Only 1 centimeter in diameter, it was too small to show up in a follow-up ultrasound. But it showed up in a breast MRI scan, as did another suspicious spot in the same breast.
“My doctor told me it might not be anything, but if it was cancer, it was very small,” she says.
Of course, she was worried. On April 4, she returned to St. Mary’s for a biopsy. On April 5, she got a call from St. Mary’s breast health nurse Ashley Woodall.
The biopsy was positive. She had breast cancer.
“Cancer,” Agnes says. “It’s a hard word to use. But people came out of the woodwork to support me. People who had had breast cancer. People who said, ‘So-and-so had breast cancer’. People do survive it. That’s helpful to know when you’re frightened and not sure what to do.”
A few days later, her surgeon, Cody Gunn, MD, shared her mammography images with her as they discussed her options. The lesion was clearly visible in one of the 3D slices, but in a 2D version captured at the same time, it was impossible to see.
“I was truly amazed,” Agnes says. “If I hadn’t had that 3D mammogram, there’s no telling when they would have found it.”
Her family, friends and church rallied around her. Ashley was there for her, too, providing a listening ear and helping her navigate the complex decisions she was having to make.
“It brings your family a lot closer,” Agnes notes. “We’ve cried. We’ve laughed. You have to laugh.”
On May 6 she came to St. Mary’s for her surgery. Dr. Gunn performed a double mastectomy. As soon as the procedure was done, plastic surgeon Cesar Gumucio, MD, performed reconstructive surgery in the same room. Performing mastectomy and reconstruction back-to-back in this way reduces the number of surgeries women with breast cancer must undergo and allows them to focus on recovery sooner.
But surgery was not enough in Agnes’ case. Breast cancer is unusual in women her age – 48 – especially in women who have no family history of the disease. So her oncologist, Cynthia Shepherd, MD, advised further testing. Agnes agreed, thinking not only of herself but her daughters. Her result: elevated risk. Dr. Shepherd recommended chemotherapy in addition to surgery.
“Chemotherapy is not what you want to do, but if your doctor tells you that you are likely to get cancer again, you do what you need to do,” Agnes says.
The fight continues
After taking some time to recover from surgery, Agnes and her family took advantage of an opportunity to spend quality time at the beach. Then, in July, she started chemo. The schedule was four powerful doses, one every two weeks, followed by 12 less powerful doses once per week. If all goes as scheduled, she will be finished in mid-November.
“They say those first four rounds are the hardest, but I felt pretty good after the first one,” Agnes says. “Still, the effects are cumulative, so I’m planning to take it easy and see how my body responds. I’ll just do what’s right for me and for my kindergarteners.
“When something like this happens, you re-discover that you live in a wonderful community,” Agnes concludes. “The support that people have given me has been great. I’m so thankful. I’m thankful that the waiting is over. I’m thankful that all my doctors have been wonderful. And I’m thankful that St. Mary’s found my cancer in time to do something about it.”
3D mammography is now available at all four St. Mary’s imaging locations in Athens, Lavonia and Greensboro. Weekend appointments are available in Athens. To schedule your mammogram, visit www.stmarysathens.org or call 706.389.2700.