Steamboat Springs resident Anita Handing has been cancer free for a little over a year and now uses her experience to help others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Photo by John F. Russell

Steamboat Springs resident Anita Handing has been cancer free for a little over a year and now uses her experience to help others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Steamboat Springs breast cancer survivor is now an advocate for mammography

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— When it comes to getting an annual mammogram, Anita Handing is vigilant. For 20 years, Handing has scheduled yearly screenings like clockwork, and the year before last was no exception.

“I went in for my regular mammogram, and usually you hold your breath and then they tell you everything is fine,” Handing said. “But this time, they said they needed to take a couple more pictures.”

The radiologist saw a spot on the mammogram and then followed up with an ultrasound.

“They found something very small, and they recommended I do a biopsy,” Handing said.

Because the spot was so tiny, Handing asked if she could wait three months and then have another mammogram performed, and her doctors agreed.

In June 2012, Handing returned to Yampa Valley Medical Center for a follow-up mammogram. The spot still was there, and it appeared to have gotten a little bigger. Handing credits the expertise and training of radiologist Dr. Malaika Thompson for detecting the initial spot on the mammogram that quite possibly saved Handing’s life.

“She is a breast specialist, and if she hadn’t had all that special training, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have seen the spot,” Handing said.

A needle biopsy was performed, and within a day of the procedure, Handing received the results during a routine visit to her regular doctor.

“I saw the look on her face, and I knew it was not good news,” Handing said. “I was so positive it wasn’t cancer. My inner voice was saying, ‘You don’t have cancer,’ and then I got the shock of my life.”

The good news for Handing was that the tumor was very small. It had been detected early and was classified as Stage 1 cancer.

Handing had a lupectomy performed by a breast surgeon at Rose Medical Center in Denver and opted to become part of a clinical trial for intraoperative radiation therapy, which involved one shot of radiation in the area where her tumor had been removed.

“I woke up after my surgery and headed home,” Handing said.

A little more than a year later, she is cancer free.

Initially, Handing told only a few close friends that she had breast cancer. But with time, knowing what great care she received from Dr. Thompson; Jan Fritz, her nurse navigator at Yampa Valley Medical Center; and others, Handing said she felt an obligation to share her experience.

“There was power in letting people know,” Handing said. “It made it better. I felt like I needed to be an advocate.

“I don’t want to see another woman go through a life-threatening situation when there’s so much you can do,” Handing added. “We’re saving a lot of lives, but there are still women who don’t do what they need to do early on.”

Dr. Thompson and Handing both agree that fear often is the reason why women put off getting regular mammograms.

“People are very emotional because it’s a scary thought,” Dr. Thompson said. “You’re getting a test done to determine if you have cancer.”

To lessen the uncertainty surrounding the mammogram experience, Dr. Thompson tries to explain everything she is seeing during the screening. She educates so that her patients can play a role in the decisions that have to be made if something is detected during the mammogram.

“I try to explain what I’m seeing,” Dr. Thompson said. “I show them their pictures. I keep them as informed as possible, so they understand. I don’t want the patient to lay awake at night wondering.”

Women living in Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley area have access to the latest in digital mammography at Yampa Valley Medical Center, which is an FDA-certified mammography facility, accredited by the American College of Radiology.

In addition, Dr. Thompson, who has been a member of the YVMC medical staff since 2010, is a specially trained radiologist who completed a yearlong fellowship in women’s imaging at the University of Colorado.

Dr. Thompson uses superlatives such as “amazing” and “phenomenal” to describe the effectiveness of mammography imaging.

“Since mammograms have been recommended, breast cancer mortality rates have declined by 30 percent,” Dr. Thompson said. “It’s the only screening test proven with medical studies to be that effective, that reliable.”

When done well and done right, the screening is extremely precise.

“If you don’t get good views, you may miss a cancer,” Dr. Thompson said. “So women have to be willing to follow instructions and tolerate as much compression as possible.”

In Handing’s role as breast cancer advocate, she emphasizes the importance of getting a yearly mammogram rather than waiting every two years or longer.

“If I had waited that long, my cancer would probably have been Stage 2 or Stage 3,” Handing said.

And knowledge is power when it comes to breast cancer.

“Finding cancer early is the most important, because it is curable,” Dr. Thompson said. “Knowing what’s going on is the only way you can take care of it.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman

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