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Early detection emphasized for breast cancer

| October 28, 2005 12:00 AM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

The repeated message at the annual breast cancer awareness Dessert Tuesday night was early detection through self exams and mammograms.

"The key is finding it early," said Libby surgeon Dr. Lance Ercanbrack to the 125 women at the dessert. "If you find cancer early enough, you can cure it."

During the past five years, Ercanbrack said he has treated 50-60 women in Libby for breast cancer. This month, probably because of the publicity associated with breast health awareness efforts, he is busy.

Ercanbrack advocates monthly self exams and yearly mammograms after a woman turns 40 years old. However, he said it would be a good idea to have a mammogram at 35 to give doctors a baseline to compare once a woman starts going for annual mammograms.

"Self exams are important," he said.

The Libby doctor believes less than 5 percent of women give themselves a breast exam monthly.

"Why? Because of fear," Ercanbrack continued. "The second reason is you might not know how to do it. And the third reason is you don't know when to do it."

He said the best time for an exam is five days after the first day of a menstrual cycle and for older woman the best day is the first day of the month — easy to remember, he added.

"Every month, not every other month," he said. "My next statement to you is only once a month because of paranoia and because your body changes during the month."

And breast exams alone are not adequate, he said.

"If I find something in a breast exam, it's too big," he said. "We're already getting run over. We're behind the 8-ball."

He said he can feel a lump as large as a marble but prefers to find them pea size.

"Yes, you need to do breast exams," Ercanbrack said. But more important is the mammogram. They are so important I can't emphasize how important."

He said the other day, through a mammogram, he found a lump 4 milligrams across. "I can fix that really easy," he said.

A lump less than a centimeter, which the doctor can't feel, has a cure rate of 90 percent, he said.

Most women know when something is wrong and they must seek immediate medical help, Ercanbrack said.

"Don't ignore the lump. You can not wait, don't wait," he said. "It's really important for a woman to get a breast lump figured out."

He said money should never be a consideration because there are available funds through the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and other sources to help all women.

And women need to remember that if they are diagnosed, they have choices to make.

"Breast cancer is the only cancer I know of where the patient chooses along the way what we (doctors) do," he said. "There's options every step of the way. My job is to teach you the advantages and disadvantages. The doctor's job is explaining these choices. Don't let doctors dictate to you."

Featured speaker Allison Eanes Score of Camano, Wash., is a breast cancer survivor.

"I was 35 with a 4-year-old and 9-month-old," Allison said. "I was busy enough and really didn't need anything else on my plate."

Unfortunately, she didn't have that choice.

"Dr. Ercanbrack was right on the mark when he said most woman know something is wrong," Allison continued.

Her right breast was feeling hot and hard and Allison thought it was another case of mastitis. When the symptoms didn't go away after 10 days of treatment with an antibiotic, she went to see her doctor — a decision she says saved her life.

"My doctor told me to go get a mammogram tomorrow," Allison said. "I started thinking that the place that gives mammograms is a busy place and if I'm getting in tomorrow, it's not good."

When the mammogram was completed she was held over to have an ultra sound and then scheduled to see a specialist, again the next day.

She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form and the most deadly. Often this form of breast cancer can not be detected by mammogram or ultra sound, she said.

"The diagnosis was the easy part," Allison said. Her treatment was to be a "trifecta" of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatments.

While more testing and exams continued, Allison's husband took on the chore of telling family and friends. Her sister Alex has just moved to the Seattle area from Libby and helped her husband inform friends.

Alex told the dessert crowd that her role as younger sister was redefined by her sister's illness.

"Our roles changed a lot," she said. "It's difficult when you can't do anything about what she was diagnosed with."

Alex said she started as the haircutter and evolved into a "not-so-merry maid."

It was difficult on her husband, too, Allison said.

"It is difficult for husbands because they can't fix it, he couldn't do anything for me," she said.

Actually her husband, her sister, her in-laws who lived nearby and her parents, Rey and Paul Eanes of Libby, became a strong support team for her and the family.

During chemotherapy she said she wasn't able to manage her own life.

"My family and friends took over," she said, calling them amazing. "I didn't cook a meal for one year. Friends brought in meals three times a day."

Four months later, Allison had modified radical mastectomy followed by 33 treatments of radiation.

"My dad doesn't like to drive in traffic. He likes Libby," Allison said. "But my dad volunteered to drive me to treatment everyday. That was really tough for him to do."

Following treatment she had strong "feelings" and fears about recurrence.

"I just couldn't leave that alone," Allison said. "I chose to have the other breast removed. It was really a freeing experience."

She also decided to have her ovaries removed.

"The other joy of completing chemotherapy and having my ovaries removed is that at 35 I was placed right in the middle of menopause," Allison said.

"At this point everything has been clear," she said. "I just think it's important to tell you there isn't just one kind of breast cancer. You need to be aware of that and its symptoms."

Allison also praised the number of existing programs and assistance groups that exist in Libby.

"We don't have half of these on Camano Island," she said.