How Early Detection Saved Her Life
November 2021 Issue
by Marie McAden Photography by Shawn Hill
Around the age of 75, many women begin skipping the recommended annual or biennial screening mammogram. Mary Legree is not one of them.
Recognizing the critical role mammograms play in helping catch breast cancer early, the 80-year-old Lady’s Island resident has never failed to get the imaging test, even though she has no history of the disease in her family.
This summer, her vigilance paid off.
After years of receiving negative results, her latest mammogram turned up an abnormality in one of her breasts. The imaging test was performed June 23 at the Beaufort Memorial Hospital (BMH) Breast Health Center. The facility, which has been recognized nationally as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence, offers same-day results. After examining Mary’s x-rays, radiologist Dr. Eric Billig informed her he had found microcalcifications in her left breast and referred her to BMH general surgeon Dr. Tim Pearce.
“It was not a palpable mass, but it was very clear on the mammogram,” Pearce said. “These suspicious types of calcifications could be early breast cancer, or could develop into more advanced breast cancer in the future.”
At her first appointment with Dr. Pearce, Mary was introduced to breast care navigator Erin Bulatao-Hollifield, whose prior medical experience includes serving as an oncology nurse for 15 years. “It’s terrifying to get a breast cancer diagnosis,” Bulatao-Hollifield said. “Not only are you dealing with the shock of hearing you have cancer, it’s hard to keep up with all the providers you need to see for your treatment. My job is to help patients navigate through the process.”
Dr. Pearce’s medical assistant, Elisa Caldwell, got the ball rolling, arranging the tests and consultations that would be required for Mary’s diagnosis and treatment. Bulatao-Hollifield would accompany her to all her appointments to explain the test procedures and answer any questions she had about her care. The first thing she needed was a needle biopsy to help determine the nature of the lesion in her breast.
“I was in the throes of planning a big party for my 80th birthday,” Mary recalled. “If it were going to be bad news, I wanted to put it off until after the celebration.”
The biopsy, which was performed Aug. 11 at the Breast Health Center, came back positive for ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive breast cancer found in the lining of the breast milk ducts. To ensure it had not spread to the surrounding breast tissue, Dr. Pearce ordered a breast MRI.
“I was very nervous about the test,” Mary said. “I hoped the cancer had not spread to my other breast, but I had already decided I did not want aggressive treatment.”
Over the next week, she met with BMH radiation oncologist Dr. Jonathan Briggs and medical oncologist Dr. Marcus Newberry. As part of Beaufort Memorial’s team approach to cancer care, the physicians and other cancer care providers meet bimonthly to discuss the results of imaging tests and pathology reports and develop a treatment strategy for each of their patients.
In Mary’s case, the MRI showed no multi-focal disease or additional disease. The results lifted her spirits and eased her anxiety. Caught at the earliest stage of development, the pre-invasive cancer did not require chemotherapy. Because of her age, she would not need radiation either. The small mass could be removed with a lumpectomy, preserving her breast.
Performed as out-patient surgery, the procedure caused minimal disruption to Mary’s very busy life. A St. Helena Island native, she is actively involved in the Gullah community, helping educate the public about the Lowcountry culture and working to preserve the traditions passed on by her ancestors, enslaved West Africans brought to the South Carolina sea islands to grow rice and cotton.
Dr. Pearce performed the surgery Sept.16 and Mary was able to go home the same day.
“When I woke up, I didn’t feel like I had undergone an operation,” she said. “There was no bleeding and no pain. The only thing I felt was a little tenderness at the site of the incision.”
Since her type of cancer is stimulated to grow by the hormone estrogen, Mary will need to take a hormone receptor blocker that limits the amount of estrogen the body produces. Taking a daily dose of Arimidex for the next five years will reduce the risk of her cancer coming back.
“If she had not had a mammogram, those cancerous cells may have been discovered as a big mass three or four years from now,” Dr. Pearce said. “Her treatment would most likely have involved chemotherapy and much more extensive surgery.”
For Mary, knowing she will be closely monitored by her cancer team for the rest of her life has relieved some of the anxiety of being a cancer survivor.
“I’m so fortunate the cancer was caught before it started traveling to other parts of my body,” she said. “That’s why early detection is so important. I absolutely encourage women to get annual mammograms.”
For more information about the Beaufort Memorial Breast Health Center—
or to schedule your mammogram, call 843-522-5015 or visit BeaufortMemorial.org/MammoAppointment.
If you need financial assistance to cover the cost of your mammogram,
contact AccessHealth Lowcountry at (843) 522-5750.
Pictured Above: Early detection enabled Mary Lagree to celebrate her 80th birthday worry free after breast cancer treatment.