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A physician diagnoses her own mother with breast cancer


Eve Matheson is a busy woman, and Feb. 1 was shaping up to be busier than usual. • On top of all her professional and family commitments, she had her annual mammogram appointment scheduled that day. But it would be an efficient stop — not only did she get the first appointment of the day, Matheson's own daughter was the radiologist on duty at the breast center.

It also was a busy day for her daughter, Dr. Tracy Halme, director of women's imaging at the Breast Center at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital and a radiologist at SDI Diagnostic Imaging. She had mammograms to read, biopsies to perform and reports to dictate. She knew she'd get her mother's mammography films early, study them and be able to deliver the annual clean bill of health.

Then Halme got the films.

Immediately, she saw an area of breast tissue that appeared to be pulling away from the rest.

"That was the worst moment," she says. "I knew it was cancer."

Matheson, born in Ireland and raised in England, worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in London before coming to the United States at age 26 to marry a young Canadian physician who would complete his training in North Carolina. The couple eventually settled in Tampa with their daughters, Halme and Solveig Ruppel, who is now a dentist in Tampa.

When Halme became interested in modeling as a teen, Matheson decided to write a book on how young girls can avoid the industry's pitfalls. One book turned into six and today she still writes about modeling for a magazine devoted to beauty pageants.

She later became an aesthetician, a skin care specialist, and works in her husband Dr. Ian Matheson's plastic surgery practice in Tampa, juggling clients, writing and family.

Halme, who shares her mother's tall, blond good looks, started modeling at age 14 when an agent her mother knew shopped around some of her photos. Every break from high school and college, she jetted off to jobs in New York and Europe.

At 24, Halme traded in her modeling career for medical school at the University of South Florida. Matheson prides herself on her close-knit family, which now includes six grandchildren. She missed her daughter terribly during those demanding years of medical training. "But I'm so glad now that she worked as hard as she did," she says.

An MRI and three biopsies confirmed that Matheson had two malignant tumors in one breast, invasive ductal carcinoma. The most common form of breast cancer, it starts in the lining of milk ducts, and goes on to invade surrounding tissue.

Halme drove to her mother's Tampa home to deliver the news.

"I'm glad it was me," Halme says, "I knew how to tell her and because of my medical background was able to answer all her questions."

Matheson remembers feeling shock and disbelief, but not panic or fear. "I know the statistics," she says, "but you never think you're going to be the one."

She briefly wondered, "Am I the same person?" Then her usual confidence rallied.

"I thought, this is silly," she says. "Of course I'm still the same person."

The next few weeks were filled with a grueling series of tests, more biopsies and doctor's appointments.

Halme knew she had to assume a new role — that of daughter-caregiver — and put her mother in the hands of other cancer specialists. But she went to all the appointments, asked every question her training had prepared her for so she could help her mother and family understand the cancer and the treatment options.

Because doctors were concerned that some of the cancer cells could migrate to her other breast, Matheson decided to have a double mastectomy. With no lymph node involvement, she would not require radiation or chemotherapy. She opted to begin the long process of reconstructive surgery right away.

The positive prognosis was surely good news. But what really sustained her, Matheson said, was more spiritual than scientific.

As word of her diagnosis spread to friends, their church family and family members in England, the outpouring of concern and support was immediate and powerful.

Masses were said in Tampa and Great Britain. "I felt I was carried along on a sea of prayers," Matheson says. "I was showered with blessings."

Concurs her scientist daughter: "It was amazing how that made us feel."

Irene Maher can be reached at or (813) 226-3416.


After shepherding her mother through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, Dr. Tracy Halme has this advice for women:

• Women at high risk for breast cancer (due to factors such as family history and genetic predisposition) should be screened annually with mammography and MRI imaging, which is more expensive but also a more sensitive test. If you have a mother or sister who had breast cancer, you should begin screening 10 years before their age of diagnosis.

• The risk of breast cancer increases with age. Most cases are diagnosed in women over 50, causing some experts to say that if a woman has no other risk factors, annual mammograms aren't needed until that age. Halme and other experts, including the American Cancer Society, however, strongly recommend annual mammograms for all women beginning at age 40.

• If you've lost your job or health benefits, check with your screening center to see if they can provide a free or low-cost mammogram. "We've seen this a lot in the last year. There are sometimes county funds or grants available to cover the cost. It's worth a call," Halme says. After all, she notes, if her mother had skipped her mammogram last year her story may have turned out entirely differently.

• Don't assume you're going to lose your hair. Halme says, "As long as the tumor isn't aggressive, most postmenopausal women like my mother won't need chemotherapy or radiation."

A physician diagnoses her own mother with breast cancer 05/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 5:39pm]
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