(SACRAMENTO)

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this year it brings new meaning for the newly appointed Chair of the UC Davis Department of Radiology.

Elizabeth Morris has an impressive résumé as a pioneer in high-risk breast cancer screening. She also gained international prominence as coauthor of the book “Breast MRI: Diagnosis and Intervention.”

The new UC Davis radiology chair has conducted research on imaging biomarkers to assess risk and treatment response. She also advocates for getting women at risk for breast cancer the screenings they need to detect cancer when it is most responsive to treatment.

And, now, she is a breast cancer survivor herself.

“For me, the whole experience of being a cancer patient felt like a confluence of my personal and professional lives,” said Morris. “I’ve been on a mission to detect breast cancer early in women so it can be found in time, and then suddenly I was facing my own breast cancer diagnosis.”

Morris comes to UC Davis from New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she was chief of Breast Imaging Services. Her cancer was caught as she was getting elective breast reduction surgery before leaving for California to accept her new post at UC Davis Health.

Never did Morris think she would start radiation therapy at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center the same month she started her new position across campus.

Risk factors low

“I didn’t have any family history of breast cancer, and my only risk factors were being a female over 50 with extremely dense breasts,” said Morris as she openly shared her story to benefit other women who wonder if they might contract breast cancer.

Tissue removed during the breast reduction surgery was sent to pathology, which is routine during such procedures. Morris is highly appreciative of the attentive pathologist who picked up her cancer, demonstrating how cancer detection is often a team effort.   

“My 3D mammogram and screening ultrasound were negative, so I didn’t wait apprehensively for my pathology results,” said Morris. “I was surprised when my doctor told me they discovered a four-millimeter tumor called invasive lobular carcinoma, named for the way it grows in a single–file linear pattern. The shape of the tumor makes it difficult to spot in a traditional mammogram and ultrasound.”

Advanced screening technology key to early detection

Lobular cancers are the second most common type of invasive breast cancer, meaning cancer that has spread to surrounding tissue. 

“It just goes to show that mammograms don’t detect all cancers, and that’s why we need to make contrast-based imaging such as MRI or contrast-enhanced mammography available to women — perhaps not annually but at least every few years,” said Morris.

Tests using an injection of contrast dye, such as MRI and contrast-enhanced mammography, are better at detecting all types of cancer compared with traditional mammograms.

“If I had to take on cancer, I’m glad I was at UC Davis,” said Morris who is from Davis and obtained her undergraduate degree from UC Davis.

“My own personal journey has only strengthened my resolve to give women the best possible chance of surviving breast cancer by getting them access to the best possible screening technology,” said Morris. “I’m so excited to contribute to UC Davis’ world-class reputation as a leader in imaging technology and contemporary research programs as it continues to serve a large and diverse community.”

If I had to take on cancer, I’m glad I was at UC Davis Health.Elizabeth Morris, Chair, Department of Radiology

Formidable cancer fighters forming a strong bond

Megan Daly and Elizabeth Morris have more than a couple of things in common: They are female physicians at UC Davis Health, both in the radiology field, and both determined to cure Morris’ breast cancer.

Elizabeth Morris started her new position as chair of the Dept. of Radiology the same time she started breast cancer treatment.

“As a breast imaging expert, with an extensive background in diagnostic radiology, Liz had a very thorough understanding of our radiation treatment plan before we even spoke. So, if anything, she asked fewer questions than many patients who don’t understand the concept of radiation or why we use it,” said Daly, a radiation oncologist. She treated Morris with 16 fractions, or small doses, of radiation starting the first month of her tenure as chair of radiology at UC Davis.

Radiology is used in diagnosing cancer through imaging radiation, and radiation oncology deploys radiation to target and destroy tumors after they are discovered.

Daly and Morris share a doctor-patient relationship and have also become peers and personal friends as they took an aggressive approach to treating Morris’ breast cancer.

“Megan has such a personable style with her patients and is so effective at explaining the advances in radiation oncology now available to breast cancer patients treated at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center,” Morris said.

Daly specializes in a variety of radiotherapy techniques, including the image-guided radiation therapy used to treat Morris.

“Liz was a great patient and, now as a breast cancer survivor, is in a unique position to understand the journey our patients take as they bravely face and conquer cancer,” Daly said.