Symposium offers latest on breast cancer research, treatments

Joan Lunden was busy with her career as a journalist, author and motivational speaker, and didn’t always get her yearly mammograms on time.

In 2014, things changed.

“I heard those words no one ever wants to hear: ‘You have cancer,’ ” said Lunden, a former long-time host of “Good Morning America,” and one of the featured speakers at a dinner symposium held Thursday, March 16 at the Del Mar Marriott hotel, before a sold-out crowd of 370. “I didn’t think it would happen to me.”

These days, Lunden travels the country, trying to raise awareness about breast cancer, current treatments, and the importance of early detection and diagnosis. Thursday’s event, sponsored by Susan G. Komen San Diego, provided her with another opportunity to spread her message.

After her diagnosis, Lunden underwent aggressive chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Her signature blonde hair has since grown back, and she appeared energetic and in full health as she addressed the gathering. “I am now NED — no evidence of disease,” she said to applause. “I’m still here and I’m rocking the boat.”

The symposium, titled “Screens, Genes and the Choices We Make,” was the third annual edition of the event put on by the Komen organization, a nonprofit that funds cancer research, provides diagnostic mammograms and other services. Along with being a forum for breast cancer education, the event raised $210,000, and the money will be used for such purposes as paying for mammograms for women who can’t afford them, said Laura Farmer Sherman, president and CEO of Komen San Diego.

On display in front of the hotel was a mobile mammography coach, an RV painted pink and equipped with 3D mammography equipment. “Regardless of the money in your pocket, you can get a mammogram,” Farmer said. “We did this (launched the mobile unit) so there would be no more excuses for not getting a mammogram. It goes everywhere women are and helps them out.”

The mobile unit is a joint effort of Komen San Diego and Community Health Imaging Centers. Sherman said both reservations and walk-up screenings are available. For information about the mobile unit’s schedule, visit komensandiego.org

As attendees dined on kale-beet salad and coconut curry (edible centerpieces made of beets and leeks adorned the tables), Lunden moderated a roster of speakers that included cancer specialist Dr. Deborah Rhodes of the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Dennis Holmes, a surgeon and medical director of the Los Angeles Center for Women’s Health.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer also expressed his support of the Komen organization and its work.

Dangers of dense tissue

Rhodes explained that some women have “dense breast tissue,” which can mask a tumor on a mammogram image, and dangerously delay a cancer diagnosis. She and her colleagues, using duct tape to rig up a prototype model, developed a technique called “molecular breast imaging,” which she said can more effectively spot tumors when women have dense breast tissue.

“Mammography does save lives,” Rhodes said. “But I don’t think it’s enough for women with dense breast tissue.” Those women, she said, need an additional diagnostic test, such as an MBI, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or an ultrasound.

In Lunden’s case, she said her mammogram in 2014 did not detect her cancer, but an ultrasound test showed her tumors. Lunden and Rhodes stressed that women need to know if they have dense breast tissue, so they can discuss it with their doctors. Early diagnosis is linked to higher survival rates, they said. One source of more information is the website, areyoudense.org

Lunden said one of her motivations for speaking to groups about breast cancer awareness is to carry on the legacy of her father, a cancer surgeon who died in a plane crash when she was 13. Another motivation, she said, is to repay the kindness she received when she was going through treatment.

“It’s not a sorority you necessarily want to join. The initiation stinks,” she said of being a cancer patient. “But the community is so supportive. As a survivor, you want to reach out your hand and help the next woman on her journey. Now is my turn to pay it forward.”

MOBILE MAMMOGRAMS: Komen San Diego and Community Health Imaging Centers offer free mammography throughout the year with its mobile mammography coach to check for breast cancer in women. Both reservations and walk-up screenings are available. For information about the mobile unit’s schedule, visit komensandiego.org or sdchic.org

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