Mammography Technician Helps Cancer Diagnosis

A radiologic technologist and mammography technician at the River Forest Breast Care Center, Cynthia Wiatrak, takes breast cancer screening to Ethiopia as part of a medical mission trip in October – in hopes of elevating the survival rate there, which is startlingly low, while Breast Cancer Awareness Month is recognized in the United States.

There’s no system of early detection in Ethiopia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 90 percent of patients in that country do not seek treatment until they are in the final stages of breast cancer, if they seek treatment at all.

This fact bothered Wiatrak, a career-long breast cancer technician and educator in the Chicago area. “I live for these women (seeking breast cancer screenings),” Wiatrak said. When she saw photos of masses growing out of the chest walls of women in Ethiopia, she knew she had to help. “The care there is so limited.”

Wiatrak is leaving her work in River Forest on September 28 to help start the country’s only known mammography screening program at a hospital in the country’s capital city of Addis Ababa. It is part of an update to the Myungfung Christian Medical Center’s (MCM) diagnostic imaging department.

During the two-week trip, not only will Wiatrak train medical professionals there how to use a new mammography machine, but also implement a breast cancer education program. She plans to introduce the medical staff in Ethiopia with her team back in the Chicago area via Skype. With the help of iPads, the two teams plan to communicate long after Wiatrak’s return to the United State for questions and encouragement as they branch into new treatment system for their patients.

Clinical studies in the United States and Europe have shown that regular early detection has caused mortality rates to fall by 30 to 45 percent. In fact, the WHO cites that the majority of cases of breast cancer are survivable, if detected early enough. Currently, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among African women, especially those residing in developing nations.

“Early detection is their single greatest chance for survival,” said Julio Rossi, MD, medical director at the River Forest Breast Care Center and chairman of radiology at West Suburban Medical Center.

In Ethiopia, however, limited medical care means breast cancer is fatal for most of the women who develop it. Aside from the country’s high poverty level, access to doctors is limited. There are an estimated 2.6 doctors for every 100,000 citizens, and only about one percent of breast cancer patients ever see treatment for their disease.

“Cindy is an excellent teacher,” said Katherine Calamia, lead technologist at River Forest Breast Care Center, who recommended Wiatrak for the trip. “She will make a real difference while she’s there, and we hope to keep the relationship going in the months to come to make an even greater impact.”

Upon arrival at the MCM Center, Wiatrak plans first to help install a new advanced mammography screening machine and teach the lead technicians there how to use it. Then Wiatrak hopes to present Ethiopian women with educational materials and to help the hospital start an educational program so that patients will receive life-saving information on breast cancer prevention and treatment.

“We’re doing more than simply setting up a machine,” said Wiatrak, who also specializes in stereotactic biopsy.  “We’re offering them a system they can use to save women’s lives.”

Mammography machines, which detect problem areas before symptoms even arise, are vital to the early detection of breast cancer. These machines x-ray the breast to examine the tissue, showing any areas that need further investigation. While some medical professionals heavily rely on ultrasounds, which only show lesions, the mammography machine is proving necessary in the screening process as it allows doctors to identify problem areas normally hidden from the ultrasound by breast tissue.

The team plans to implement the same interdisciplinary approach used at the River Forest Breast Care Center and West Suburban Medical Center. In this system, the entire team of professionals – the radiologist, oncologist, mammography nurse, pathologist and surgeons – all meet with the patient at once so everyone involved can participate in the decisions.

Ultimately, Wiatrak hopes her time in Ethiopia has a ripple effect with the potential to save millions of lives.

For more information on West Suburban Medical Center’s oncology program or its River Forest Breast Care Center, visit www.westsuburbanmc.com or call (708) 488-2300.