When BCRF investigator Dr. Wendie Berg was a teenager, her 55-year-old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that time in the U.S.—the late 1970s—treatment was far more limited than it is today. Chemotherapy wasn’t an option.
Dr. Berg’s brother, who was then working as a breast cancer researcher, became very involved in their mother’s treatment and care—digging into the latest treatments and looking for potential studies she could join. Their mom enrolled in what turned out to be a pioneering clinical trial testing a post-surgery chemotherapy regimen (cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil, or CMF) that is still widely used today.
“I went with my mom to her appointments, and I was aware that she had consented to be in this research study,” Dr. Berg said. “And then, as I became a researcher myself, I also, of course, ultimately learned that CMF became the standard of care.”
Ultimately, Dr. Berg’s mom lived to be 96 years old with no recurrence of her breast cancer.
Dr. Berg was inspired to dedicate her career to breast cancer research and radiology not only because she saw firsthand how research had saved her mom’s life. She had also witnessed the many ways it still needed to improve: Her aunt, who had been treated for breast cancer at 40, died a few years after experiencing a recurrence at 60. When Dr. Berg’s mom was diagnosed, imaging and screening was “very crude.” Her mom caught her breast cancer because she noticed her nipple had retracted.
“When I went to medical school, I knew I wanted to make things better, and with my family history, I had a self-interest in making things better,” Dr. Berg said.
She became interested in radiology during her PhD training and eventually went on to become the lead investigator on the notable ACRIN 6666 trials testing ultrasound and MRI for breast screening. Today, innovating breast cancer screening is still Dr. Berg’s focus. Dr. Berg became interested in improving diagnosis for women with dense breasts (about 43 percent of the overall population) because not only did her own mother have them, but she does too.
With BCRF support, she and her team have been testing artificial intelligence–assisted diagnosis software to improve breast screening ultrasound, which is used on women with dense breasts because traditional mammography often misses early cancers in this group. More recently, also with BCRF support, she and her team have been testing contrast-enhanced mammography to screen women with a personal history of breast cancer.
“Cancers don’t always show up on mammograms in dense breasts, or in women who have been treated for breast cancer, and I knew we needed to do something about it,” she said.
Seven years ago, as she was writing her textbook, Dr. Berg plugged herself into a risk model she was including in one of the book’s chapters. Seeing her lifetime risk of breast cancer was 19.7 percent, which was borderline high-risk, she pushed her doctor to order her a breast MRI, in addition to her routine mammogram and ultrasound.
“I looked at my MRI images, and I called my husband and said, ‘I have breast cancer,’” she said.
Because Dr. Berg’s breast cancer was early-stage and very small, she was easily treated with a lumpectomy and radiation.
Inspired by her personal experience and research focus, she launched an informational website for patients and providers, DenseBreast-info.org, and got involved in helping advocates pass laws informing women of their dense breast status and requiring insurance to cover supplemental screening. She’s done all of this in addition to her work as a researcher and a radiologist seeing patients.
“My own family story is basically the story of how things have improved so much because of research,” she said. “My aunt died, then my mother had chemotherapy and was disease-free the rest of her life, and then my treatment was minimal. That’s what I want for everyone. I want all women to have an equal opportunity for early diagnosis and easy treatment.”
Read more inspiring stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.
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