Devastating diagnosis sparks a singular mission for Hawthorn Woods woman
Every three months, Hawthorn Woods resident Leslie Ferris Yerger visits the Mayo Clinic hoping to buy more time.
She is there today, fingers crossed, waiting for the results of a PET scan. Her incurable Stage IV breast cancer has been in remission, and the scan will show whether it has become active.
Ideally, she'll get a green light for another three months. But Ferris Yerger knows it won't always be so. She is scared but still fighting and more determined than ever to tell her story to help others avoid the same outcome.
She was diagnosed nearly three years ago with advanced lobular breast cancer that had been hidden in dense breast tissue and undetected by a mammogram and ultrasound.
Since then, Ferris Yerger walked 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago in Spain to mentally prepare for her fight against the disease, raised more than $100,000, gave numerous talks and wrote a book with the mission of supporting research and prodding the medical community to advance the standard for breast cancer screening.
"It's given me a lot of purpose," said Ferris Yerger, 58, a former computer programmer, production supervisor and business development manager.
"There are a lot of improvements we have to make so what happened to me doesn't happen to others."
In part, because of her effort and the contribution of local philanthropist Vince Foglia, Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital within a month expects to have a molecular breast imaging machine up and running -- said to be only the second in Illinois.
"While we were most interested in offering this technology to our patients, there's no telling how long it would have taken for us to implement without Leslie's singular goal to bring MBI to her community and the generosity of Vince Foglia to make this happen," explained Dr. Barry Rosen, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of Good Shepherd's Breast Center.
Rosen said mammograms alone may miss breast cancers in women with dense breasts as often as a third of the time. As half of all women have dense breast tissue, this poses a significant problem that can only be overcome by additional cancer screening tests that can "see through" the tissue, he added.
Screening ultrasound is available at Good Shepherd for low-risk women with dense breasts, while high-risk women can have magnetic resonance imaging, he said. MBI will be another tool
The new special equipment has a higher cancer detection rate than ultrasound and a much lower price than MRI. And women who can't tolerate the claustrophobia of an MRI may prefer this alternative, according to Rosen.
Ferris Yerger has been taking an FDA-approved drug and is part of a study at the Mayo Clinic to improve care for those with metastatic breast cancer.
She said the treatment works an average two years, but she has been on the drug close to three years, has been in remission and feels good.
Her paperback book, "Probably Benign: A Devastating Diagnosis, a 500-mile Journey and a Quest to Advance the Next Generation of Breast Cancer Screening," is doing pretty well for someone who isn't famous, she joked.
She's also taking the curriculum for the National Speakers Association.
"I have spent most of my life being fearful of public speaking -- it still makes me nervous," she said. "But I feel I have something to say that needs to be heard."