Elizabeth Morris, new chair of the UC Davis School of Medicine Department of Radiology, 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. Morris 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.

“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.

Coming home for care

Morris completed her undergraduate degree at UC Davis before receiving her medical degree from UC San Francisco, so she was returning to her alma mater to finish her cancer treatment.

“If I had to take on cancer, I’m glad I was at UC Davis,” said the Cal Aggie alumna. “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.