BRADENTON -- When she was 35, Bradenton's Sharon LaBarbera started getting a mammogram exam to check for breast cancer each year. She never missed one until she was 61.
That year -- 2001 -- LaBarbera was out of town for her regular breast exam and figured she would just skip it a year and wait till 2002 because she had been faithful with her breast exams and never felt any lump or discomfort.
But the one thing about being the mother of a daughter who is a mammogram technician is that the daughter isn't going to cut the mother any slack regarding a missed breast exam.
"It didn't go over too well with Melissa," LaBarbera, a 1959 Manatee High School graduate said Friday, describing the reaction of her daughter, Melissa Rollins, head of the mammography department at Bowes Imaging Center, 6207 Cortez Road, Bradenton.
The women sat in Rollins' office Friday, which was the second day of October's Breast Awareness Month and reminisced over the missed breast exam while swapping tears and laughter.
Rollins has been an X-ray technician for 25 years and a mammography tech for 21 years.
LaBarbera, who, scolded by her daughter, finally scheduled her breast exam in 2001, although a bit later than normal.
Pouring over the X-ray pictures of her mother's right breast, Rollins saw a suspicious clump of tissue, just a few cells that bothered her.
"It was a density," Rollins said of the clump 14 years ago. "It definitely had satellite arms coming off it. It was very odd-shaped. Usually, when something has a very smooth border it is usually a cyst or breast fibroid, or something else benign. When the borders of a density are not smooth and it does not look round, that is something suspicious."
Following a biopsy a month or so later, the tiny cells that were not even a lump but more like grains of sand on a beach would prove to be the very early beginnings of an aggressive estrogen-fed breast cancer.
After a lumpectomy -- the name is inaccurate because it's not just a lump being removed but part of a whole breast -- LaBarbera had seven weeks of radiation and no other treatment.
She has not had a return of the breast cancer since.
"Thank God she knows what she's doing here," LaBarbera said of her daughter. "She caught it really early because it was very small. I might not be here otherwise. I would tell every woman to go every year from about the age of 40 and never miss because they could lose their whole breast or their life."
Mammograms beginning at 35
One reason why Rollins, whose father is Steve Hawker of the decades old, now closed, Hawker Seafood Market in downtown Bradenton, was so concerned about her mother not missing her test is because her mother has fibrous tissue in her breasts.
All breasts range between dense and fatty but women whose breasts are on the dense side are slightly more likely to have a malignancy, Rollins said.
"Mom has that dense tissue so it is very important that we compress that kind of tissue so it spreads out and we are able to differentiate one thing from another," Rollins said.
That compression of breast tissue occurs when the breast is put on the Bowes' digital mammogram machine. The machine takes an X-ray of the breast and produces a digital image that allows technicians to manipulate the image, making measurements on the screen and even making it darker and lighter to get a diagnosis,
The squeezing of the breasts by the machine can be uncomfortable, especially if the breasts are dense and fibrous, Rollins said.
"Personal pain tolerance plays a role, but also a good mammo tech is very slow and careful, which makes a huge difference," Rollins said.
The discomfort is over quickly since it just takes seconds for the breasts to be photographed, Rollins added.
The American Cancer Society recommends women should start getting mammograms at age 35 to get a baseline so that technicians like Rollins can see how the breast looks clear of suspicious tissue.
"Then, at age 40, they should pretty much have an annual exam the rest of their lives," Rollins added.
One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lives, but early detection is the key to surviving the cancer and early detection is aided greatly by a mammogram, Rollins said.
Men get breast cancer, too but less than one percent of lumps in men are cancerous so breast cancer is still considered rare in men, Rollins said.
Brothers go all-in
Mother and daughter talked about the importance of yearly breast exams and their excitement about an unusual mammogram fundraiser scheduled from Oct. 26-30 at Bowes Imaging Center where all money raised will go to either Anna Maria or Stewart elementary schools.
The fundraiser, which could result in thousands of dollars for the school's Parent Teacher Organizations, began out of a bet between the two brothers who own Bowes Imaging Center over who could raise the most money for their kid's schools.
Nathan Bowes' kids go to Anna Maria and Matthew Bowes' kids go to Stewart.
In 2007, Nathan Bowes started Bowes Imaging Center with his brother, Matthew, and father, Thomas.
"We're very competitive," Nathan Bowes said of he and his brother, Matthew.
The bet between the brothers became, "Mammograms for ABC and DD's."
"We didn't come up with the name, rather some women did," Nathan Bowes said on Friday, talking about how ABC stands for schools and DD's for bra size. "In fact, I didn't figure out what it meant for several days."
During the week of Oct., 26-30, any woman who gets a mammogram at Bowes Imaging Center will essentially be donating their test fee to one of the two schools. Many teachers, staff and parents from the schools are signed up for a mammogram the last week of October because the schools will benefit as will they, Bowes said.
"But woman can come," Bowes added. "They don't have to be connected to Anna Maria or Stewart to have us make a donation in their name."
Lindsay Sauls, president of the Anna Maria Elementary Parent Teacher Organization, said she is grateful for the fundraiser, but is also happy it will remind women to take care of their health.
"We have one parent who said her mammogram prescription has been sitting on her desk for at least six months," Sauls said.
"When she heard about this fundraiser, she called and made her appointment."
The average insurance co-payment for a screening mammogram is $141 and during the benefit all that money will go to the Parent Teacher Organizations, Bowes said.
With Bowes' participation, if 100 women get exams the last week of October, the PTOs would share $10,000 to $14,000, Bowes said.
Making it more attractive is Bowes' price for mammograms for women without insurance.
"We have the lowest uninsured rates in town," Bowes said, stating that the business charges $40 for mammograms.
"And we will work with anyone in order to get it done. It is something that my brother and I feel is a very good community outreach for the public."
To participate, women are asked to call their primary care doctor and ask for a prescription for a screening mammogram requesting Bowes Imaging Center as the provider, Bowes said.
Then, women are asked to call Bowes Imaging Center at 941-782-0490 for an appointment during the ABC and DD's fundraising week.
"In the past, to raise $141 through traditional fundraising, a single student at Anna Maria Elementary would need to sell about 300 tubs of cookie dough or 300 chocolate bars, Sauls said.
Bowes knows he and his brother are giving away a lot of money to the schools. But motivating women to get examined is more important, he said.
"When you start talking about mammograms it's one of those deals where, I feel, if you've got the equipment, got the staff and got the radiologist, why don't you just do them?" Bowes said. "It just doesn't make any sense to hold up such a simple care."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.