Brandenburg woman's experience with breast cancer underscores the importance of routine mammograms

Baptist Health Hardin. October 30, 2023
Elizabethtown, KY (Oct. 27, 2023) – Since the age of 40, Ellen Hendley never missed her routine mammogram screenings.

Having worked in healthcare for more than 25 years, she had seen patients with cancer. But she had gotten an even closer glimpse at cancer when it struck her family – not once but twice. She watched a close relative with breast cancer become a survivor. Another family member was not as fortunate.

Despite her family history, she still was not prepared at age 44 to hear the word ‘cancer.’ She had gone for a routine, 3D mammogram screening at Baptist Health Diagnostic Center in Elizabethtown in May 2022. What began as a routine screening changed her life dramatically when she got the call the next day that something looked suspicious.

“At first, I didn’t really think anything of it because I had fallen the week before, and I was in a boot with a couple of broken toes,” Hendley said.  “I thought maybe I wasn’t in the right position for the mammogram.”

She returned the next day for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. The radiologist was concerned about what he saw in both breasts and so a biopsy was scheduled. Though the biopsy only revealed atypical cells in the left breast, the biopsy revealed a 1.8-centimeter mass in her right breast.

Hendley said, “There isn’t a way to prepare yourself to hear the word cancer. I didn’t think I would get it this early in life. I didn’t think I would get it at all. I don’t think anybody does. But when you hear the word ‘cancer,’ it changes your perspective. When you hear it, you have to give it all you’ve got to fight and have a mindset that you are going to win."

“Breast cancer is very curable if caught at an early stage. It’s actually one of the most curable cancers at more than 90% for early-stage breast cancer, but less so with later-stage breast cancer.  said Donald Goodin, MD, hematologist and oncologist for Baptist Health Hardin. “It’s very important to catch it early. Ellen went in for her routine screening mammogram, and a lesion was found on the screening – and luckily, very early-stage cancer.”

Baptist Health Hardin’s cancer team moved to quick action. Hendley met soon after with her oncologist, surgeon and breast navigator. Together, they decided Hendley would have a lumpectomy, which was performed in June. More tissue had to be taken than initially expected, and so Hendley also had a partial mastectomy.

But she wouldn’t be finished until the cancer was gone. Baptist Health Hardin’s cancer team met weekly to review Hendley’s case to confer on her individual treatment plan. She was prescribed 16 radiation treatments, with the last performed on Aug. 6

After completing her radiation treatments under the oversight of a radiation oncologist, she continued to meet with her physicians for progress checks. Dr. Goodin also prescribed long-term immunotherapy. Her last mammogram, performed in May 2023, was normal. Even better, the left breast showed completely clear, pointing to the success of her treatment.

Hendley credits the cancer care team for its individualized approach to treating cancer. “When I met with the cancer team, they had a plan already set for me and gave me my options. When you first go to the cancer center after you have been diagnosed, and you meet with all the specialists to discuss your case, including Audrey, the breast navigator.

The team approach was unbelievable, and Audrey (Audrey Cleaver, RN, BSN, breast navigator) was always there for me. She was just like a female friend that you really needed at the time, to let you know what was ahead. She was always a phone call away. Still to this day, a year out, she still contacts me and checks on me, and it’s a wonderful thing to know that someone cares about you to reach out to you still.”

Hendley also praises the 3D mammograms offered at Baptist Health Hardin and its diagnostic centers. The diagnostic center in Brandenburg, where Hendley now gets her screenings, was the fourth (and final) Baptist Health Hardin location to adopt the 3D technology (in November 2022), which gives physicians a better view into more dense breast tissue that can be difficult to see with 2D.

“I personally will always be thankful for the support they gave me as well,” Hendley said. “They made me feel like ‘This was going to be a piece of cake. You are going to be fine.”

Hendley encourages every woman to perform monthly self-exams, but stresses that mammograms are essential for finding lumps that are too small or too deep within the tissue to feel. “You should make the time and the effort to get with your physician and get your appointment. It’s something that you shouldn’t put off. If your mammogram comes back normal, it’s a relief. It’s something you won’t have to worry about until the next one. If you are diagnosed with cancer or it comes back as abnormal, you can take the next step – and it can save your life just like it did mine.”

Hendley is enjoying getting back to her regular routine and loves spending time with her family and her dogs. One of the highlights of her cancer journey was walking in the 2023 Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade, an honor for which she was nominated by her son Wyatt, who also escorted her to the racetrack for the walk. She and her husband Tim renewed their wedding vows on the beach in July. “After you have been diagnosed with cancer, you take a different aspect on life. You don’t take anything for granted.”

Though breast cancer can present with symptoms, many women with breast cancer have no symptoms. The American Cancer Society recommends breast cancer screenings beginning at age 45, with the option to begin at 40. If you are of the recommended age, at-risk, have a family history, or are experiencing what may be symptoms of breast cancer, talk to your physician about a mammogram.
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