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“HERA saved my life”

Each time L.A. County Sheriff’s Commander Cheryl Newman-Tarwater shares her story about her battle with breast cancer, everyone asks the same question: “Why doesn’t my hospital have a HERA program?”

The Hoag Early Risk Assessment (HERA) program, which is supported by a grant from the Legacy Foundation, not only evaluates a woman’s lifetime breast cancer risk profile, but also provides support and resources to help women take control of their breast health. With HERA, Hoag is taking a proactive role in the prevention and early detection of breast cancer.

As the daughter and great-grand-daughter of breast cancer survivors, Cheryl knew she was at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Her physician advised her to enroll in the HERA program, which qualifies her for regular breast MRI screening exams. The MRI allowed doctors to detect a small mass in Cheryl’s left breast that was invisible on her standard mammogram. The mass was an invasive lobular carcinoma, notoriously difficult to detect until it grows much larger.

“Because of early detection, my cancer was stage one, about as early as possible for detection,” Cheryl says. “I was told by my surgeon that had it not been for the MRI, my cancer would not have been detected probably for another year by mammogram, and who knows what stage the cancer would have been at that point.”

Based on her history and diagnosis, Cheryl opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. During that surgery, Dr. Colleen Coleman discovered a tiny cancer deposit in one of her lymph nodes. If her diagnosis had been delayed any longer, it likely would have spread outside the breast and become much more invasive and life threatening.

“HERA and that MRI saved me from so much potential trauma including death,” she says. “If not for Hoag’s program, I would be in a much different position a year from now or two years from now.”

HERA, which is funded through philanthropic donations, is open to women 35 to 55 who come in for a mammogram screening at one of Hoag’s six imaging facilities, according to Dr. January Lopez, breast radiologist and director of breast imaging at Hoag Breast Center.

“In our first three years, there were about 2,000 women identified as being ‘high risk’ for developing breast cancer,” Lopez said of the HERA program. “These women were all notified of their risk assessment. Nine hundred and sixteen high-risk women underwent an in-depth consultation with our high-risk nurse practitioner, Karen Herold, and were provided counseling and resources about their high-risk status, like Cheryl.”

HERA Under 40 is a more recent program whereby, Hoag breast specialists are reaching out to women at pre-mammogram screening age to identify younger at-risk women. To date over 594 women have undergone risk assessments with 80 women identified as high risk and receiving complimentary consultations with our high-risk nurse practitioner.

“She was so fortunate that she was involved in the program,” Lopez said. “We want greater reach to more women. When we are unable to prevent a woman from developing breast cancer our goal is early detection at the most curable stage.”