North Valley gets 3-D mammography machine

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Sheri Yeager, lead mammographer at North Valley Hospital, works beside the hospital’s new digital breast tomosynthesis machine. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

A patient getting a mammogram at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish would be unlikely to notice that the hospital now has a new a digital breast tomosynthesis machine, but health-care providers say the new technology is meeting their goal of providing the best care possible.

The digital breast tomosynthesis — known as 3-D mammography — machine was installed at the hospital last month following fundraising efforts that began in 2017.

Dr. Michael Henson, Imaging Medical Director and Chief of Staff at North Valley, said the need for a digital breast tomosynthesis machine had been identified two years prior to when fundraising efforts began.

“We want to have the best for our patients,” he said. “It’s important to have them everywhere. The fundraising for it was huge because we couldn’t have afforded it without that.”

The technology upgrade to the digital breast tomosynthesis is important, providers note, saying it takes multiple X-ray pictures of the breast from many angles to provide a whole picture or 3-D images when screening for breast cancer.

“When you have a 2-D picture of a 3-D structure it can lead to a lot of false positives,” Henson said. “Most the time they’re benign, but it reduces the number of times we have to call back a patient. The other benefit is finding cancer earlier.”

Henson said allowing for detecting cancer sooner is important for the patient.

“The chance of having a cure is higher with early detection,” he said. “The treatment options are greater when you find it earlier.”

The machine’s addition to North Valley’s imaging department is the result of fundraising that began in the spring of 2017 with a donation of $150,000 from the Jerome Broussard family. What followed was a fundraiser in partnership with the Whitefish Community Foundation’s Great Fish Challenge, many donors contributed to help the hospital foundation meet its fundraising goal. The total project was completed at $540,000.

Doug Wehrli, Director of Imaging Services at North Valley, said support for purchasing the new machine was widespread from North Valley Hospital and Kalispell Regional Medical Center

“It wasn’t just the medical staff at both hospitals — it was the employees, individuals and community members who contributed,” he said. “It makes sense to buy this machine not because the hospital will ever get a return on its investment, but because it’s the right thing to happen. This is really integral to the well-being of our patients.”

Dr. Melissa Hulvat of the Bass Breast Center at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and Dr. Amanda Beer of Northwest Imaging in Kalispell were part of the team leading the effort to bring the machine to North Valley.

Hulvat said that prior to the machine operating at North Valley, it was “sad that care was being offered to women in Kalispell” that wasn’t in the north Flathead Valley. She said with 2,500 mammographies taking place at NVH it was imperative to get the technology in place in Whitefish. The digital breast tomosynthesis machine, she explained, takes more images than a standard mammography machine, which makes it less likely to miss cancer or false positives that cause unnecessary worry. It’s also better for a variety of breast types, she noted.

“Instead of two pictures, you get two movies — or a bunch of pictures to look at,” she said. “It really cuts down on both those problems.”

While mammography doesn’t detect every type of breast cancer, Hulvat said, for her as a surgeon, using the digital breast tomosynthesis machine is invaluable because of its ability to detect cancer when it is as small as 2 millimeters in size.

“That’s the size of a grain of rice,” she said. “The digital breast tomosynthesis gives us the chance to find cancer that is so little. We can have the cancer gone and women can get back to their lives and work sooner with less worry — that’s a joy.”

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