SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Diagnostic radiology specialist and breast cancer survivor Dr. Kimberly Hutcherson participated in the Society of Breast Imaging Symposium 2022 in Savannah this week.

The core purpose of the Society of Breast Imaging is to save lives and minimize the impact of breast cancer. During the symposium, shared decision-making was a hot topic. H.O.P.E for Patients & Caregivers – MOLLI Surgical

“Shared decision-making is when the patient and the physician are involved in the care they are about to receive,” Hutcherson explained. “We want to present to the patient all of the options that are available for her care. 

“Surgeons are going to discuss surgical options they feel are important that can take care of the cancer. The medical oncologist does the same, and the radiologist is doing that process as well, making sure the patients are informed of all that’s available for their care. Then together, they make a decision about what is best.”

A 2020 Physician Champion Award winner and medical director of Breast Imaging and Intervention at Northside Gwinnett Breast Center, Hutcherson’s study and work in the field of breast health are extensive and date back to the 1980s.  

“My mother is a teacher and my dad was a computer analyst in the Air Force, so we grew up in the Panama Canal Zone,” Hutcherson said. She then moved to her parents’ hometown of Andalusia, Alabama, in the states, where she finished high school.

“There, I just found a passion,” said Hutcherson. “I had really passionate teachers in mathematics and biology, which led to me majoring in mathematics and biology at my college, Birmingham-Southern College.”

After graduating from college, she entered medical school at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. It was during her third year of medical school when the chair of the radiology department was very influential in introducing her to the importance of radiology in the path of medicine. 

“I had expressed an interest in women’s health, so I interviewed for a fellowship — just one fellowship and one interview — at the Women’s Imaging Fellowship at Magee – Womens Hospital, which is at the University of Pittsburgh, and was accepted,” Hutcherson explained. “So that’s what led me down my path, my interest in women’s health and breast imaging.”

Eventually, she relocated to the Atlanta area and interviewed for just one job, which she got and still holds today.

Hutcherson believes she’s been very lucky and blessed along her journey. However, she experienced a different type of blessing in her life, personally diagnosing her own breast cancer at an early stage.

“My breast cancer journey is pretty unique,” she said. “I am blessed I am a breast radiologist and I diagnosed myself with an early-stage breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 40. 

“I am happy to announce that this year, 2022, I am celebrating my 15th year as a breast cancer survivor.”

Hutcherson has shared portions of her journey with her patients throughout the years, so they see that she has been through a similar journey they are about to experience.  

“My journey is also unique in that I received my pathology results the day after my biopsy results from a friend, a pathologist at my hospital,” she explained. “I really wanted to give my patients a similar experience of receiving their pathology results in a timely manner and a comfortable environment.”

She continued: “In my practice, I spearheaded a process improvement in our patient center program called a Post Biopsy Breast Clinic wherein a comfortable space environment the radiologist gives the patients results in person.”

That process consists of a minimally invasive breast biopsy that is scheduled within three days. The post-biopsy breast clinic is scheduled three days after the biopsy. 

In the clinic, the patient meets the radiologist and breast health nurse from oncology services. In addition to evaluating the biopsy site to ensure proper healing of the incision, they schedule an appointment with one of their breast surgeons so the patient will know the next step in their care with the goal of decreasing any anxiety that some may experience.  

Concerning when women should start having annual mammogram screenings, Hutcherson said 40 years of age.

“When we can detect changes early, there’s more options for treatment and there’s a better chance for survival,” she explained. “The theory of having mammograms every other year, or beginning at the age of 50 — there’s a large number of cancers that are going to be more advanced by the time they’re diagnosed. We want to catch these changes when they’re early.” 

Hutcherson said breast self-awareness is something she encourages in patients as well.

“The idea of knowing that you know your own body, most likely better than anyone else, you’re going to look for those changes: nipple discharge, changes in the skin, focal pain, a palpable lump, dimpling in of the skin, skin discoloration,” she said. “If you see these changes, be aware of these changes, let your doctor know immediately. See if they can refer you to your nearest breast center to be evaluated by the radiologist.” 

For women who may have a family history of breast cancer, Hutcherson said the recommendations are for beginning mammograms 10 years prior to the age of onset of breast cancer in the first three relatives. For example, if a mother had breast cancer at age 40, she would recommend the daughter have annual mammogram screenings at age 30.

“The number of breast cancers that are actually hereditary are very small, around 5%,” Hutcherson said. “So, the actual concept that ‘because my mom or my aunt had breast cancer, I’m going to get it,’ is not necessarily true.

“Majority of breast cancers just happen due to environmental issues, you know, there’s lots of things out here in the world I think that ultimately cause cancer in patients.”

However, the specialist said there are preventive steps people can incorporate into their lives as far as being healthy.

“Staying at a healthy weight, exercising, not consuming too much alcohol, or smoking or things of that nature,” Hutcherson recommended. “All of these can be carcinogens that can affect changes that cause breast cancer.”

When it comes to breast cancer eventually being eradicated, Hutcherson doesn’t foresee it. 

“Eradication is an interesting word. That would indicate that we would have to detect what gene and there’s so many different types of breast cancers that are out there,” she explained. “There’s different receptors, there’s so many different variables and what type of breast cancer you have, what receptors, how you treat it. 

“So I think the best thing that I can say is eradication is probably not something that I could foresee, but I’m not in the biological field aspect of determining.”

Hutcherson said as a breast radiologist, from a diagnostic standpoint, early detection is key to saving lives.

“There are millions of people alive in this world that have survived breast cancer, and they survived because they had detection early,” she said. “They had treatment that was appropriate for their type of tumor and the characteristics that were associated with that type of tumor and they are surviving and thriving today and being advocates for other patients out there.”

According to the World Health Organization, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have died from breast cancer in a single year. 

For those who may not take breast health seriously, Hutcherson said: “Life is a wonderful thing, and you want to be here for your family, your friends and just for yourself. It’s painful and hurtful to think sometimes people are not taking advantage of the resources that are available to them.”

“It’s about education really, and I think not being aware that any type of cancer diagnosis does not mean a death sentence, and I think it’s really a fear factor,” she continued. “They just don’t want to come in. They don’t want to know. 

“Not knowing is worse than knowing because if you don’t know and then it continues to grow and it advances and spreads and then ultimately the doctors can’t treat it successfully. You don’t want that situation, you want to be able to detect changes early so that we can offer better options for treatment.”