Teresa Montague of Clifton was already grappling with two cancer diagnoses when she received a third in 2018: breast cancer.
But that diagnosis and subsequent treatment had been delayed after a mammogram didn’t show the five cancerous tumors in her breast.
Although a biopsy confirmed that a lump she found on her breast was cancerous, a follow-up mammogram — an X-ray that examines breast tissue for masses — didn’t show anything of concern due to her dense breast tissue, Montague, 71, said.
The radiologist declined to do an ultrasound her doctor ordered after tumors couldn’t be identified in her mammogram, she said.
“I was angry and I was in tears,” Montague said. “I’ve had 3D mammograms done for years and they all said I have dense tissue and it would be wise to get an ultrasound.”
Montague is now advocating — especially this month, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month — for people with dense breast tissue to receive secondary screening, especially if they suspect there’s a health concern.
“Even if you don’t get them every year, people whose mammograms show dense breast tissue should get sonograms,” she said. “If people have dense breast tissue, mammograms don’t do the job.”
Dense breast tissue has relatively high amounts of glandular and fibrous connective tissues with lower amounts of fatty breast tissue.
Mammograms of people with dense breast tissue can be more difficult to read because the tissue can appear the same as some abnormal breast changes, such as tumors, in the imaging, according to the National Cancer Institute. As a result, mammography is less sensitive in women with dense breasts, making tumors easier to miss.
Montague later switched health care systems and sought out an ultrasound at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. The additional test revealed five tumors in her breast, and she was diagnosed with stage four HER2-positive breast cancer, a type of cancer that tends to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers.
This was Montague’s third cancer diagnosis in two years. In 2017, she was diagnosed with and received treatment for skin cancer and lymphoma.
“This has been a barrage of cancers, and most people are scratching their heads, just like me,” she said. “I feel like I have cancer everywhere.”
With the latest diagnosis finally in hand, Montague received one round of chemotherapy, underwent a single mastectomy to remove the tumors, and is now on an estrogen-suppressing medication to stop tumors from growing.
Though a recent MRI showed her breast cancer hadn’t returned, she received a CT scan on Monday to evaluate spots on her lung and kidney that could be cancerous.
While grappling with multiple cancers “knocked me flat,” Montague said being able to see specialists at the LaFayette Family Cancer Institute in Brewer, which partners with Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, saved her from driving hours for treatments and other appointments.
“To be honest, for the last five years I’ve felt bedridden, but ever since I started a new medication this year that seems to be working wonders, I’ve had far more energy and feel like myself,” Montague said. “That makes life far more pleasurable.”