A Kennewick woman at high risk for breast cancer says an MRI screening saved her life.
It’s a test that health insurers for large groups would be required to pay for all women in Washington state under a bill introduced in the state Legislature by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.
Elena Whitemarsh said she went ahead with the magnetic resonance imaging at the urging of her doctor even after her health insurer refused to cover it.
“I have known dozens of women like myself who are high risk and have never had an MRI screening because it is not covered by insurance,” Whitemarsh said during a hearing on Senate Bill 5716 before the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee.
“I had the financial means and the willingness to make an independent decision, but others are not in the situation,” she said.
The MRI image four months ago detected invasive breast cancer in an early stage that was undetectable on the mammography and ultrasound screenings that also were done, she said.
Because her grandmother died from breast cancer at 46, Whitemarsh, who is 45, has been diligent in screening, including mammograms, ultrasounds, genetic testing and an MRI baseline check 16 years ago, she said.
Brown was contacted by Dr. Rachel Fidino, chief executive of New U Women’s Clinic and Aesthetics in Kennewick, about the need to make sure all women at high risk have access to MRI’s.
An annual MRI screening in addition to a mammogram is recommended by the American Cancer Society for women at high risk of breast cancer, Fidino said.
The American Cancer Society says women at high risk are those with a lifetime risk of developing breast cancer of 20% or higher based on their family history; have a BRCA gene mutation or a close relative with the gene mutation; or have certain other genetic abnormalities or close relatives with them.
Senate Bill 5716, which has been in the works for several years, is similar to legislation already passed in 13 states, according to supporters of the measure.
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in Washington state and the second leading cause of death, Fidino said at the Senate committee hearing.
But early detection saves lives, she said.
MRI detection of cancer in women at high risk is up to 90%, compared to 38% for mammography or ultrasounds, she said.
“Without early diagnosis, cancer treatments become much more complicated and more expensive,” she said.
Treating stage 1 breast cancer costs about $82,000, but if cancer has advanced to stage 4, the cost increases to an about $134,000, she said.
“MRI screening likely saved my life,” Whitemarsh said. “Had it been available it may have saved my grandmother’s life.
“My hope is all women have access to screening and treatment and that my daughters will also benefit from all available treatments,” she said.