Diagnosis prompts fundraising campaign for Breast Health Centre

By Bhavana Gopinath – 

Kitchissippi resident Rebecca Hollingsworth describes herself as “lucky.” Diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2016, she learned that same week that her younger sister, Mary Ellen Hughson, also had the same disease. After being treated for breast cancer and watching her sister go through the same experience, Rebecca says they were fortunate to have had access to the diagnostic facilities of the Breast Health Centre, part of The Ottawa Hospital. She is now on a mission to encourage other Ottawa women with similar health challenges to support the Breast Health Centre’s expansion and purchase of sophisticated diagnostic machines.

Her experience started with a routine breast self-exam in November 2016. She felt something amiss. Trusting her instincts, she called her doctor and got a mammogram the same week.

Kitchissippi’s Rebecca Hollingsworth and her sister Mary Ellen Hughson – both cancer survivors – are helping The Ottawa Hospital Breast Health Centre bring life-saving technology to Ottawa. Photo by Ellen Bond

A few more tests and a biopsy later, the diagnosis of breast cancer was confirmed. In the meantime, she convinced Mary Ellen to have a lump of her own checked out immediately. It turned out that she too faced the same disease—a statistical aberration that oncologists at the Breast Health Centre likened to the odds of being struck by lightning, twice.

Rebecca and Mary Ellen underwent extensive testing at the Breast Health Centre where sophisticated technology caught tumours that other tests had missed. For instance, Rebecca’s pre-surgery MRI found five other tumours that hadn’t been visible on a mammogram or on an ultrasound. In Mary Ellen’s case, the mammogram came back negative, but an ultrasound revealed her cancer. Both sisters, like about half of all women, have dense breast tissue. Dense breast tissue increases the chance that cancers may go undetected in a routine mammogram. MRI scans, more sensitive than other diagnostic options, provided a fuller picture of the extent of the spread of the disease even in their dense breast tissue.

Early detection through regular breast self exams, world-class diagnostic technologies, and expert surgeons and oncologists at the Breast Centre informed the sisters’ treatment plans and prognoses. In Rebecca’s experience, diagnoses, treatment plans and outcomes all depend significantly on the quality of the initial screening, so providing more access to MRI machines is critical.

The sisters took on a challenge that the Breast Health Centre faced—the purchase of a new 3 Tesla MRI, part of the Centre’s plans for expansion. Breast MRI is the most sophisticated testing to detect cancer and The Ottawa Hospital had been raising funds to purchase the equipment, which costs $250,000. This machine, dedicated to breast MRIs, will help test more women and catch cancers earlier than conventional tools.

Rebecca and Mary Ellen launched a fundraising campaign by planting “Rebecca and Mary Ellen’s Tree of Hope” outside the Breast Health Centre at the Hospital’s General Campus. The campaign aimed to solicit donations to help the Breast Health Centre purchase the machine. Ottawa businesses and individuals contributed generously; one individual, Suzanne Halpenny, contributed $250,000. Thanks to Suzanne’s generosity, the original goal was surpassed and the sisters are now working on helping the Centre purchase a new GE Logic 9 ultrasound machine. Funding is also needed for ongoing research in best practices in breast cancer oncology. The research includes a project called REaCT (for Rethinking Clinical Trials), being conducted by a team of “amazing” Ottawa doctors, including Rebecca’s and Mary Ellen’s oncologist, Dr. Mark Clemons.

Rebecca wants to draw attention to the stellar work of the Ottawa Breast Health Centre. The expanded centre, to be consolidated within the Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus, will address patients’ breast health needs in one location and with greater efficiency. It will improve capacity in diagnostic imaging, provide more consultation and examination rooms, accommodate the varied needs of patients and facilitate increased collaboration among physicians, nurses, oncologists, breast imaging technologists, and administrative staff.

Both sisters completed their treatments in September and Rebecca is now focussed on her fundraising. The Ottawa Hospital and the Breast Health Centre has “inspiring” doctors, nurses, radiation oncologists and staff, she says, and all she wants to do now is give doctors the tools to do their job.

We are lucky, she says, as The Ottawa Hospital is one of the best places for treatment in this part of the world. Access to sensitive tools helped her and her sister treat the disease, and she now wants to help the Breast Health Centre bring more life-saving technology to Ottawa. To that end, she is hoping that Kitchissippi residents will help support the ongoing Tree of Hope campaign.

For more information, please visit treeofhopecampaign.com.

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