Denver Health Catches Breast Cancer, Saves Life

April 11, 2024

Julia Burtness Denver Health Breast Cancer Survivor

A Breast Cancer Patient's Journey From Mammogram to Biopsy to Surgery to Radiation to Recovery


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Denver Health saved Julia Burtness's life twice. The first time she faced a life or death situation was during a complicated pregnancy in the 1980s. The second happened in 2023, when she got a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Like many breast cancer patients, the diagnosis was unexpected, but the result of her diligence in going in for regularly scheduled mammograms, something she has been doing at Denver Health for years. In the case of her last appointment, that mammogram was a life-saver. The 62-year-old said before she came in that day, she didn't think anything was wrong – but she has always been cautious about breast cancer because it runs in her family, with an aunt who had it.

See how Denver Health's breast care team helped Julia Burtness beat cancer in this short video. 

A 3D mammogram detected a small growth in Julia's breast.

"After we found something concerning on her imaging workup, we were able to fit her in the schedule to do a same-day biopsy," said Denver Health breast imaging radiologist Nhat-Tuan Tran, M.D. 

"After I had the biopsy, they said it was cancer," Burtness said.

Denver Health breast care coordinator and radiology nurse Taylor Smith called Burtness with her results. "Our techs here at Denver Health are trained to be gentle and efficient with mammograms," Smith said. "We get the results in a very quick fashion. Julia just understood that this cancer doesn't wait. She was ready and wanted to know what to do next."

Denver Health's breast care team understands that many times, patients have a lot of anxiety when they receive this type of news and that the longer they wait, the harder it is on them psychologically. That's why it's important to work with them and get them the proper treatment they need as soon as possible. 

Denver Health was able to get Burtness into surgery within two weeks.

"Small changes can be very subtle and when we find cancer at the earliest stages, you can have the best outcome," added breast imaging radiologist Christopher Doyle, M.D.

"Denver Health, their team is amazing because they work so fast," Burtness reflected.

"With her cancer, she's actually done a very good job in that she's been getting a screening mammogram every year," said Denver Health Chief of Breast Surgery Nancy Taft, M.D. "So this cancer was detected fairly early. Based on that and the biology of the cancer, I recommended that we start first with surgery. After surgery, she went to go see the medical oncologist and they did some tests on her tumor and decided that she would not benefit from chemotherapy. So what I did for Julia in surgery is that she had what's called a lumpectomy. And the size of the cancer was such that that was really the best option for her."

Doctors often recommend a lumpectomy when a biopsy finds cancer in patients at the earliest stages and when it is small. Burtness underwent radiation therapy following surgery.

"Cancer is such a tough diagnosis – it impacts absolutely everything in a person's life," said Denver Health Chief of Oncology Sonia Okuyama, M.D. "We have a psychologist who specializes in the care of cancer patients. The way that I approach each situation is thinking, 'How would I want my own family member to receive, this type of care?' We care for the whole person, not just the disease."

Denver Health's breast care team is comprised of a comprehensive team of breast specialists working together to provide the best care possible.

"I think it's great to have everybody under one roof where you can get your medical oncology, surgical oncology, breast pathology, breast radiology and breast cancer genetic testing," said Dr. Doyle.

And it all starts with a mammogram. Regular mammograms are recommended for people with breasts age 40 and above and appointments are available within a week at Denver Health.

"A mammogram can save your life like it saved mine," said Burtness. "I've trusted Denver Health because they saved my life. You're in good hands with Denver Health."