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Mammography technologist reflects on 20 years: “Catch it early if something’s there”

LAPLACE — No one is ever excited to walk into the mammography room at St. James Parish Hospital.

Stacy Heltz of LaPlace, a mammography technologist of 20 years, said a large part of her job is comforting women who come in flushed with embarrassment or teary-eyed for fear of what the mammogram might find.

“A mammogram is a very personal test, so I try to calm my patients and reassure them by explaining what to expect during their mammogram,” Heltz said.

“You just have to comfort them and let them know they made the first step to come do their mammogram. The whole purpose of a mammogram is to catch it early if something’s there.”

Heltz reminds patients irregularities can turn out to be benign lymph nodes and cysts. If breast cancer is detected, early detection comes with a 99 percent cure rate, according to Heltz.

Terry Martin, 72, has diligently scheduled mammograms at St. James Parish Hospital for decades, a habit that potentially saved her life in 2016.

An abnormal mammogram led her to a biopsy, diagnosis of two forms of breast cancer, a mastectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation.

Stacy Heltz, left, pictured Monday at St. James Parish Hospital, said she feels a deep professional and personal connection to her two-decade career as a mammography technologist.

Though her feet still swell from the chemotherapy, Martin said she’s in remission and doing well. Her days are now spent with family, growing closer to God and remembering to never take one moment for granted.

Martin wants others to be aware of how quickly and unexpectedly cancer can strike, even without a family history.

“I have good days and bad days, a lot of good days now,” Martin said, adding she is thankful for her medical team, including Heltz.

“Stacy has been awesome,” Martin said. “I’ve known her since she started working there, and she’s the most wonderful person you’d ever hope to see and talk to. She’s like a sister to me. When I see her, she lights up because she’s happy to see me.”

Heltz knew she wanted to go into radiology to keep people healthy and help them live their best lives. She joined the St. James Parish Hospital team in October of 1998, straight out of school, and hasn’t looked back since.

“I treat every patient like family, and I’m so blessed because I get to see my patients every year,” Heltz said. “It’s almost like we’re catching up. They know about my personal life. I know about their personal life. It’s just a real personal profession.”

Helping women through their fear has taught her compassion. When her patients cry or burst into nervous laughter, Heltz is reminded that for her patients, a mammogram is a lot more than a simple test.

She can’t emphasize the importance of her career enough, especially considering there has been a spike of breast cancer diagnosis in the River Parishes.

“Within the past year and a half, the amount of breast cancer that is being found through mammography is unbelievable,” Heltz said. “It has tripled in diagnosis.”

New technology isn’t a factor for the spike, according to Heltz, because she’s used the same type of equipment for decades.

“I just think more younger women are aware, coming in and getting mammograms, which is a good thing,” Heltz said.

Though the American College of Radiology recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 40, Heltz said she’s tested and found breast cancer in younger patients.

(Editor’s note: Thanks to a dedicated group of business and professional sponsorships, L’OBSERVATEUR is profiling local breast cancer survivors each Saturday throughout October in celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Thank you Ronny Michel for interviewing these brave members of our community and sharing their stories with us all. Please be sure to check out their stories all month long.)