Breast cancer is common — more common than many people think. There is a one in eight chance of a woman developing it in their lifetime, and eight out of nine women diagnosed have no family history of it. To help detect the possibility of breast cancer early on, Essentia Health created a high-risk breast cancer program, which is available in Detroit Lakes.

"The program aims to detect cancer early and reduce risk," Dr. Ben Smith, radiologist at Essentia Health-St. Mary's, said.

The program starts with introducing the Gail Model to patients during their yearly mammogram appointments. The model is a series of questions that help doctors calculate a patient's risk of developing breast cancer.

If the risk is found to be 20 percent or higher, Jen Sonnenberg, the nurse navigator, will help enroll the patient in the high-risk breast cancer program. Steps after that vary, but could include seeing a high-risk breast specialist, more appointments and other measures.

"Even though people think, 'Oh, I have to see somebody, that means something's wrong' — no, this is just making sure that if something did go wrong ... we're going to catch it right away," said Kayla Olson, the imaging manager for Essentia Health-St. Mary's.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

Sara Skalin, the lead mammography technician at Essentia Health-St. Mary's, added, "It really is up to the patient; we give out the information and it's up to them what they want to do with it."

"I think we just realized that ... breast cancer is common ... so there are patients that are at an increased risk. We just realized that we can serve our patients better by calculating these risks," Smith said.

Olson said they also "didn't want to be the place that was calculating the risk and then doing nothing about it."

Now, Essentia Health-St. Mary's is one of two main places that Essentia patients are directed to for the high-risk breast cancer program. The Detroit Lakes and Fargo clinics are the main hubs for consultations, imaging, procedures and more. Patients can take advantage of the program even if their primary care person is with a different hospital. Sonnenberg can also help with that.

"We have really good technology in DL. We have some of the best that's out there," Smith said. "You can get really good breast cancer care here ... We're good at identifying, at treating breast cancer."

Who is at high risk of breast cancer?

Since most breast cancer occurs in women over the age of 50, the program is aimed at women 40 years and older. That is the age when women start their yearly mammogram appointments, which Smith and his coworkers stressed are very important.

A mammogram is an X-ray of each breast, which can expose tumors that otherwise would not be felt. This can lead doctors to find breast cancer early, which increases the chances of survival.

"To save the most lives from breast cancer, starting at age 40 and having a mammogram every year is the way to do it," Smith said. "If we find cancer that's confined to the breast, so it's just in the breast ... the 5-year survival is 99 percent."

Essentia Health-St. Mary's has three different mammogram machines, which Smith said are identical to those available at the Mayo Clinic. Insurance companies are required to cover yearly mammography appointments, and Smith and Skalin both recommend that patients pay the extra $100 and do the 3-D option. They also offer a breast MRI, which Smith recommends patients take yearly, as well.

"We want to detect cancer early, we want to reduce the risk as much as possible," Smith said. "And unfortunately, as long as you have breasts, you're at risk for developing breast cancer. And men, too — they have breast tissue."

Since introducing the program in Detroit Lakes in April 2018, Skalin and Olson indicated that they've seen six or seven high-risk patients per month, and that maybe half of them go further with the program. They, along with Smith, believe that number will increase between September to January, with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and with locals leaving town for the winter.

To make an appointment for the high-risk breast cancer program, call 218-844-2347 and ask for a breast cancer risk assessment.

Fundraisers set to support the project

Essentia Health-St. Mary's created the breast health project, which will enhance care for women in the Detroit Lakes area.

The EHSM Foundation's Fire and Ice benefit at Lakeshirts on Sept. 13 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. has all proceeds going to benefit the project. Call Mary at 218-844-0719 for more information.

A three-course brunch set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 at Spanky's Stone Hearth will also benefit the project; call 218-844-3555 for more information.