Written by Aaron Lam
“Knowledge is Power When it Comes to my Health”: How BEACON is Shining a Light on a Patient’s Risk Factors
Maria Radford will never forget the whirlwind of her life in 2014 — a year defined by struggle and survival.
“Within the course of that single year, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, I underwent two months of chemotherapy and I had 25 radiation treatments.”
By the end of 2014, Maria had completed her treatment at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and she could breathe a sigh of relief, as no signs of cancer were found in her scans. She was a cancer survivor – but her journey with Women’s College Hospital (WCH) was just beginning.
“In 2015, I started visiting Women’s annually for follow-up mammograms,” explains Maria. “During a visit in late 2022, they found a buildup of calcium in my breasts.”
A correlation exists between calcium deposits in breast arteries and similar deposits in the arteries of the heart, which results in an increased risk of heart disease – the number one preventable cause of death among Canadian women, according to the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre.
Maria was invited to participate in BEACON (Joint Breast Cancer & Cardiovascular Screening in Women), a trailblazing research initiative being conducted at WCH. With BEACON, Dr. Elsie Nguyen, Dr. Paula Harvey, Teresa Bianco and their team are studying how patients are impacted when mammography is combined with screenings for heart disease.
If calcium buildup is discovered in the breast during mammography – as occurred with Maria – the patient is then sent for a CT scan to determine if calcium deposits are also forming in the arteries of the heart.
“I thought the study was a great idea and I agreed to participate. Another motivating factor was the fact that my mother and father both died of heart-related illness. I was interested in doing whatever I could to prevent this from happening to me, and to find out my level of risk.”Maria Radford
By combining these two types of screenings, the BEACON researchers are demonstrating their ability to think outside of the box and explore creative new ways to improve patient care without putting additional strain on the healthcare system. Such an innovative approach to screening could mean the difference between life and death for some patients.
Early detection and prevention are important to decrease the risk of heart attacks and stroke. The BEACON team hopes that a joint breast cancer and cardiovascular screening program will better equip women and their healthcare providers to implement preventative measures, which will result in improved patient outcomes.
Combining mammography and heart screening in this way improves efficiency and enables patients to receive more timely care. Especially when it comes to heart attack and stroke, time is a vital factor.
“I’d already had a mammogram recently, so I moved ahead to the next step, which was having a CT scan of my heart at Women’s. They found that I had calcium deposits in my heart as well.”
Knowledge truly is power when it comes to one’s health, and the results of the scan informed the next steps in Maria’s care.
“I was sent to my family physician for testing of my heart rhythm, and I was put on low levels of medication for my elevated cholesterol,” says Maria. “My family physician continues to monitor my heart health closely, but no further treatment is needed right now, thank goodness.”
As a strong advocate for her own well-being, Maria is being proactive in her health by making healthy lifestyle choices in terms of diet and exercise. She is determined to do everything in her power to stay healthy so she can live life to its fullest.
“I believe we should be advocating for others’ health, in addition to our own. Participating in the BEACON study is a way to advocate for others. It’s an example of the groundbreaking work that’s being done at Women’s College Hospital, and this type of forward-thinking research will benefit generations to come.”
To date, 246 participants have enrolled in the BEACON study and 63 individuals have completed all screenings and questionnaires. The first male participant has also been recruited for the study, and the BEACON team anticipates reaching its goal of recruiting 300 participants by March 2024.