Breast cancer advancements benefiting local patients

OSCEOLA COUNTY — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is possibly one of the largest fundraising campaigns in the U.S. Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised to help find a cure, improve treatment and diagnosis procedures, increase awareness and educate individuals on the best ways to determine if they have found cause for concern.

But how are local patients benefiting from the continuous advancements?

According to medical experts at the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center and Spectrum Health Reed City and Big Rapids hospitals, personal awareness begins with regular screenings. Each year, more than 5,000 patients utilize mammography services between Big Rapids and Reed City hospitals.

"I think women are changing the way they think about themselves and how they approach healthcare, and I think they're taking more charge of that healthcare. They're willing to take that step forward and say it's important to them," said Kathy Stein, director of clinical diagnostic services. "The American Cancer society recommends mammograms if you have issues or find a lump, but they don't recommend you need to start until 35, and then checkups take place every other year until you turn 40, then it's every year."

Local Spectrum Health patients who are fighting breast cancer have one of two opportunities when it comes to easily accessing a specific type of technology to tackle the disease.

"We have a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which combines CT and nuclear medicine. What that does is allows the patients to have better knowledge of their cancer stages," Stein said. "Doctors can tell where the cancer has gone in the body, where the cancer primarily began and how well the radiation or chemotherapy is doing. That's huge for us. The PET scanner is one of our newest technologies and it's available in Reed City."

In fact, Reed City is the only location outside of Grand Rapids within the Spectrum Health system offering the PET scanner, Stein added.

"That was a great advancement for us to be able to bring that to Reed City community, especially with the Wheatlake center there," she said. "It was like the vital piece missing of the puzzle — to be able to provide that cancer care close to home for our patients."

The Big Rapids and Reed City facilities also offer breast MRI services, which benefit women with dense breasts or those who need a different type of image of the breast in question. Surgical procedures stereotactic biopsies and ultrasounds can be performed at both locations as well.

"It is the complete care for breast care at both locations," Stein added.

The Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center is packed with state-of-the-art cancer fighting technology for those dealing with the disease. Irene Balowski, director of cancer services, said 47 women have been treated for breast cancer at the facility this year, compared to 64 in 2014.

"Women with breast cancer make up probably our largest population of patients," she added. "As far as technology, we have the linear accelerator, but we also have the 4-D CT simulator. It connects the simulator and the treatment machine with a 4-D image, so when staff are treating an area that may move during therapy, they are able to track that movement while the patient is getting treated. The tumor volume gets measured during inhalation and exhalation, so you're able to keep the treatment to the actual tumor volume instead of exposing healthy tissue."

Apart from medical machinery, however, the cancer center is focusing on ways for physicians to better connect with other doctors and patients, even if they're in different locations.

"Telemedicine allows a patient to come to our clinic locally and sit in a room, and on a screen with very good image quality, be able to converse with a physician who may be in Grand Rapids or some other city. It's a very personal interaction over a screen," Balowski said. "We initially thought patients wouldn't like it, but they really do. They like the fact that they don't have to drive so far, and the quality of the screen and the privacy they have in the room allows them to share as if you were sitting right in the room with the doctor. It's been really well received."

Telemedicine is convenient for patients who lead busy lives or are too fatigued or weak to travel long distances. Currently, staff and patients at the cancer center are using the service for mental health counseling, genetic counseling, pulmonology and basic visits concerning cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The center also offers a service called "tumor boards," which gathers staff such as radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, radiologist, pathologist and others involved in the patient's care sitting at one table to view pathology and radiology results from the lab while discussing the results with a pathologist located in Grand Rapids through the same telemedicine connection.

"The tumor boards are something I've wanted for a long time," Balowski said. "Physicians can look at all of those tests and discuss the case and what the best standard of care is for that patient. That patient has the advantage of having many minds making a decision about their care. The tumor boards here meet once a month and our physicians here can give input for physicians in Grand Rapids."

In addition to technology, wellness information and activities provided at the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center assist patients on an emotional and spiritual level. The facility provides therapies including massage, acupuncture, reflexology and more to assist patients' healing and progression alongside treatment.

"Any time you can provide a different type of service to a patient, even if it's enough to take the edge off or take their mind off of everything and help them cope, the 'look good, feel better' goal is more attainable," Stein added.

Balowski believes the standard of care has greatly increased due to technological progression.

"Those things we provide were always things that the patient had to travel to Grand Rapids for, and now we can do that right here," Balowski added. "It enhances care because we can bring the team to the patient as opposed to the patient having to go through all these different providers."

New advancements are constantly occurring.

"In some respects cancer treatment is the same as it used to be, but in terms of chemotherapy we're seeing more and more targeted agents, or agents that will target a specific point on the cell," Balowski said. "Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that will effect both the good and bad cells. With targeted agents, they target just the area on the cell that's causing the problem.

"Oral chemotherapy also is a big thing now. In the past, patients would be placed on hormonal therapies where they would go home and no one would track them. Now we have a whole program around that, which makes it very convenient for the patient who can go about their life and still get treatment."

Though not yet available on the local level, other forms of technological advancements are available to breast cancer patients able to travel.

"The world of radiology and mammography is always expanding, so they're always looking for the latest, greatest and the best technology out there to diagnose early cancer," she said. "Within the Spectrum Health system there is new technology, like 3-D tomography, which is basically a mammogram that's a 3-D image where physicians can take individual slices of the breast and get much greater detail. It's very beneficial for ladies who have dense breasts and who have a large family history of breast cancer. That's the newest technology out there within our system. Big Rapids and Reed City don't have it yet, but the goal is to bring that close to home so we can have that for our patients locally."