When Elise Cormier was 25, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that nearly took her life.
“It was scary. My doctors wouldn’t tell me that I was gonna live,” Cormier said.
“I was on bed-rest for six months, in like a telemetry unit. [They were] monitoring my heart and I was in bad shape.”
But after just one radiation treatment of her thyroid, she “felt alive for almost the first time.”
It was a transformational experience that set Cormier – who has a geography major from the University of Vermont – on the path to become a radiographer, and eventually a mammographer.
“I really wanted to advocate for women’s health and so for me it’s a dream come true, that it all just fell into place,” she said.
Now, Cormier is a mobile mammography technologist for Kalispell Regional Healthcare. Her role takes her across Northwest and North-central Montana on a coach that performs breast cancer screenings and diagnostic services.
“It’s kind of a God thing because I’d always wanted an adventure bus, and I was looking into converting like an old school bus into an adventure bus. Funny enough it turned out that I’m working on a bus all over Montana now,” Cormier said.
Cormier spends half of every month with the mobile coach, splitting time with the other mammography technologist, Lori Fitzgerald. The unit spends a day at each of the nine locations it visits, and travels as far east as Malta while stopping in other isolated towns like Choteau, Browning and Cut Bank.
“It’s not everyone’s gig. You’re on the road a lot, you’re sleeping in hotels away from your family,” Cormier said, but added that, for her, it’s worth it “a thousand times over.”
The coach has nearly all the equipment for screening and diagnostics that is available at The Imaging Center in Kalispell. If the technicians find a lump in a patient, there is a radiologist on board who can look at it with an ultrasound. Then the patient will know if they need to travel to a hospital to get a biopsy performed.
THE UNIT started in 2008 when Jane Winkley, a philanthropist and breast cancer survivor who died in 2014, donated around $1 million to fund a mobile mammography unit. The coach was named the Winkley Women’s Center and traveled 325,000 miles across northwest and north-central Montana over its 11 years in operation.
That original bus is out of commission, and Kalispell Regional Healthcare is currently soliciting donations for a new bus. In the meantime, a company out of Phoenix is loaning Kalispell Regional a coach to keep the operation up and running.
“She [Winkley] felt like no woman should go without being screened,” Cormier said.
“These women, a lot of them would not be seen if we weren’t showing up in their town. They don’t want to drive 60 miles. Us coming to them has made a world of difference.”
Cormier said the mobile unit has been responsible for finding 160 cancers while performing 21,000 screenings since its inception. They currently do not have 3D mammography technology, but they hope to have it on the next coach. Cormier describes 3D technology as the “next-level thing” in mammography. Anything that aids in early detection is essential, Cormier said.
According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for someone with cancer localized in the breast is 99%, but drops to 27% if the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the lungs, liver or bones.
While in high school in Maine, Cormier saw how suddenly breast cancer can take someone’s life after the mother of one of her best friends died from the disease.
“It was like a diagnosis and four weeks later she was gone,” Cormier said.
Then, tragically, her friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. The friend had previously been genetically tested and found she had the BRCA gene mutation, which puts women at a much higher risk of developing cancer.
“She got a double mastectomy, radiation, quit her job ... and now four years later she has stage-four and it’s in her lungs, her bones. She’s going to keep changing treatments and live with it as long as possible,” Cormier said.
“It’s one of those things where, it doesn’t seem fair or right when you seem to be doing everything right.”
Cormier took a big life risk just to get into the field of women’s health care. She moved from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Missoula with nothing but a carry-on, hoping to get into the University of Montana’s radiologic technology program.
“I didn’t have anything. And I didn’t know I’d get into the program, so I spent a year in pre-radiology just hoping that they’d let me in. I was living in a dorm and working 40 hours a week while going to school. There was no plan B,” Cormier said.
Fortunately, things went according to plan, leading Cormier to a stint in Polson before finding the position with the mobile mammography unit. And when Cormier is not on the road, she still works full shifts at The Imaging Center.
“Really anyone can get [breast cancer], some people think that because they don’t have a family history it can’t happen to them, but that’s just not true,” she said.
“It’s one of those things that affects everyone. I feel like everyone knows someone who had it … But it is completely treatable, so that’s the most important message, just catching it early.”
Reporter Colin Gaiser can be reached at email@example.com or 758-4439.