A routine mammogram caught LMH patient’s cancer early

photo by: Submitted

KC Atchinson

In spring of 2022, KC Atchinson got her routine mammogram — and then got some news that no one is ever quite ready to hear.

“This is your friendly reminder to get those regular health screenings, my loves,” she posted on Facebook in April 2022. “Found out yesterday I have breast cancer. It’s stage 1, very treatable, so nothing to worry too much about, but thankful that LMH kept nagging me about that mammogram I was a few months overdue for.”

Atchinson had had mammograms before without too much fanfare. After getting one in December 2020, she was called back in for additional imaging. That revealed nothing more than a cyst, so she was advised to return in another year for another routine mammogram.

Atchinson has a busy work and home life, being a Title IX administrator at the University of Missouri Kansas City and a single mom. So when it came time to schedule her next mammogram, she put it off for a while.

“It seems like an excuse, but I’m busy and forgetful about making regular appointments,” she said. “I’d received a couple of reminder letters from LMH, which I’m grateful for. One was on my fridge for quite a while to help jog my memory to make the appointment.”

Atchinson scheduled her mammogram for April 19 at the LMH Health Women’s Center. Nothing was amiss during the appointment, but a couple of hours afterward, she got a call that the team wanted to get more images. She expected it would be a cyst, just like in her previous exam, so she didn’t think much of it and scheduled the appointment for two days later.

But this time, it wouldn’t be that simple.

“After the imaging, they said they wanted to send me for a sonogram and I started to wonder what was going on,” Atchinson said. “I was told the radiologist would look at the scan to let me know what they found and that I’d talk with the breast surgeon. That didn’t sound good at all.”

Dr. James Werner, the radiologist, came in to talk with Atchinson. He told her they wanted to schedule a biopsy and the team happened to have an opening that day.

Atchinson said she thought that the less time she had to think about what was going on, the better. So the biopsy was done, and Atchinson was told her results would be back the following Monday or Tuesday.

She didn’t expect a call the next afternoon from Dr. Jennifer Hawasli, a surgeon with Lawrence Breast Specialists.

The pathology notes were in, she was told. They showed carcinoma.

The follow-up

Atchinson had early-stage breast cancer, so her team recommended that she undergo an Oncotype DX test, which predicts how likely it is that the cancer will return after treatment. It analyzes a sample of the cancerous tissue removed during the biopsy to help determine if the patient will benefit from chemotherapy in addition to hormone therapy.

“My team learned that my score was very low, which was a really good number to see,” Atchinson said. She said she learned that a low number means the patient likely doesn’t need chemotherapy because there’s little risk that the cancer will return.

Instead of undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, Atchinson was prescribed tamoxifen, a medication that blocks the effects of estrogen on the cancer cells.

“Tamoxifen is a pill I take at home each day,” she said. “I’ll be on it for five years to reduce my estrogen. So far, hot flashes are the only side effect I’m having from the treatment, and I’m getting used to them.”

Surgery

Even though there was little risk of the cancer coming back, Atchinson didn’t want to take any chances. She chose to undergo a double mastectomy, and on June 16, she had both breasts surgically removed by Hawasli. She also underwent the initial phase of reconstruction with Dr. John Keller, a surgeon at Plastic Surgery Specialists of Lawrence.

“While some patients are able to go home the same day, most stay overnight following a double mastectomy,” he said. “KC’s surgery went well. We kept her for a couple of nights before discharging her home.”

Despite the smooth surgery, there was still some normal post-operative pain. Atchinson said the clinic had a doctor on call whom she could contact for help by phone or text any time she had questions or concerns.

Atchinson underwent the next phase of reconstruction in late 2022, and her prognosis is good, with a less than 1% chance of the cancer recurring. She’s returning to her day-to-day life without any post-surgical restrictions.

“If I could do anything for future people who will be in my position, I’d tell them to make sure to check in on their mental health and wellbeing. It’s a stressful process,” Atchinson said.

She also said it’s important not to wait to get routine screenings and care.

“Don’t put off your mammogram. Get your regular health screenings,” she said. “I’m busy and forgetful about making regular appointments. This one saved my life.”

— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.

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