By Emma Young
“If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” said Rebecca Barnes, Entrepreneur, Occoquan Woodbridge Lorton Volunteer Fire Department volunteer, Director of Give Back Prince William, and Publisher of this magazine. Performing regular breast self-exams, and having no family history of breast cancer, Barnes was late getting her annual mammogram. Then, Barnes recounted, “a member of our Fire Department lost her last battle with breast cancer a few months ago.” In her colleague’s honor, Barnes got her mammogram.
Barnes was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer. Mammography was key to detecting the cancer at an early stage. “It is the sneakiest because I couldn’t have felt it in a breast exam. It’s not a lump,” said Barnes. “It is caught early enough that they can get the cancer out. It would’ve been too far gone if I had waited until I personally detected something,” she stated.
Barnes has Stage Zero Ductal Carcinoma in Situ in her left breast. “It means my cancer has not broken through. Once it breaks through it is invasive and can travel in the bloodstream, into lymph nodes. It is important to catch it early.”
Statistics prove her point. The National Cancer Institute’s SEER database shows the five-year relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%. Stage II’s five-year relative survival rate is ~93%, stage III is about ~72%, and metastatic, or stage IV, breast cancers are ~22%. Though, “there are often many treatment options available for women with this stage of breast cancer,” stated Deana Henry, BSN, RN-BC, OCN, CHPN, Oncology Patient Navigator at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center.
Sentara Northern Virginia has multiple Comprehensive Breast Center locations, each accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers, the highest standard of breast disease care. According to their literature, “Among all breast cancers, 1 in 6 is diagnosed in women in their 40s, and 75% of all breast cancers arise in women with no significant family history,” like Barnes. “Screening mammography offers the greatest chance at detecting these cancers at an earlier stage. This means a quicker recovery and better quality of life,” according to Sentara Northern Virginia’s Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines.
Mammography’s importance struck Barnes. “I decided to take something bad and make something good out of it,” said Barnes. “I made it a personal goal to get at least 100 women to tell me they’ve got their mammograms or to schedule one” as a result of her story. “My sense of humor and I have a relationship,” stated Barnes. She started telling her story on social media with the hashtag #Savelefty. “If you can’t find a bright side, it will eat you up,” said Barnes. “Bringing attention to my breasts is a social no-no. I’m not supposed to talk about my breasts, not supposed to give a clever hashtag and talk about Lefty. Some feathers are ruffled, but those same people are going to tell someone to get their mammograms,” Barnes stated.
Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center lowers barriers to mammography and care. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American College of Radiology recommends annual screening mammograms begin at age 40. In addition to multiple traditional locations, women may also take advantage of their Mobile Mammography Van. If you are over age 40, no physician’s referral is required for an annual screening. While insurance is billed for patients who have coverage, care is provided to patients who are uninsured on a prorated basis. “Sentara Healthcare has a financial assistance, uninsured patient discount program and a charity care program. Cost should not be a barrier to access for breast cancer screenings,” said Henry.
3D Mammography is also available. According to Henry, “3D early detection is the most effective tool in treating breast cancer successfully. [It] allows radiologists to see cancer more easily, and sooner than ever before.”
In addition to multiple support groups (e.g., Breast Cancer Support Group, Living Beyond Cancer, Cancer and Caregiver Support) and activities (e.g., Meditation for Cancer, Yoga for Cancer), Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center offers an Oncology Patient Navigator. Henry, as Oncology Patient Navigator, “offers a single point of contact to help navigate patients every step of the way. As a registered nurse, my clinical knowledge and skills help support the patient and their family through the entire cancer journey. I help patients and their loved ones face the diagnosis, reoccurrences, and transition into survivorship,” said Henry.
One barrier for women in Northern Virginia seeking mammograms – being too busy to get a mammogram – is in their control. Barnes has a counterpoint: “If you’re too busy to get a mammogram, you’re too busy to have cancer.”
You can follow Barnes’ cancer journey through the #savelefty hashtag, via RebeccaBarnesMedia on Facebook, TheRealRebeccaBarnes on Instagram, or follow her on Princewilliamliving.com.
Since this story was written, cancer was discovered in Rebecca’s right breast as well. In early November 2018, she received a bilateral partial mastectomy. In 2019, she received radiation treatment. In late 2020 she had to have a radical hysterectomy due to complications from cancer medications.
After hearing Rebecca’s story, more than 200 women reported they got their mammograms. Three reported they were diagnosed with breast cancer, and one with cervical cancer.
Emma Young is a freelance writer residing in Dumfries. She scheduled her annual mammogram as a result of the #Savelefty campaign.