Visions of her mother’s severe radiation burns from breast-cancer treatment stuck with Eddy Duckels through the years. So did tales of her grandmother’s lost battle with the disease, despite a mastectomy. So when doctors told her that she, too, was dealt that unlucky breast-cancer card, Duckels wasn’t really surprised. Just a little uneasy.
But Duckels caught her breast cancer early. And treatment of the disease has advanced far beyond the “horse-and-buggy doctor” days of her grandmother’s. In fact, largely because of people like Duckels and her Rose Medical Center surgeon, those haunting memories are gradually being banished to the past.
“My goal is to make early-detected cancers easy to cure,” says Dr. Barbara Schwartzberg, Duckels’ surgeon and lead investigator in two breakthrough clinical trials that could make treatment of early-stage breast cancer almost a lunch-hour process. “I want to show patients that it’s to their advantage to get their mammograms and do their self-exams,” Schwartzberg says.
Duckels, 68, already knows that advantage. The Centennial resident was lucky to have her lump detected via mammogram when it was still so small, even her doctors couldn’t feel it. She credits being proactive and maintaining a long-term relationship with her Rose doctors for the early diagnosis, which made her a candidate for the clinical trial and state-of-the-art laser treatment.
The procedure, which Schwartzberg hopes will eventually replace the standard lumpectomy for early-stage tumors, involves inserting two probes, one a laser and one a thermometer, through two pinpricks. The in-patient procedure is done using local anesthesia and ablates the tumor, killing it and any surrounding cells, in about 15 minutes.
“We put a Band-Aid on, and patients go on with their day,” Schwartzberg says. “They also don’t have any volume loss to the breast, as they do with a lumpectomy, which requires in-patient surgery with general anesthesia.” By comparison, Duckels experienced slight discomfort during the treatment from the laser’s heat and some swelling afterward.
Radiation post-surgery is also standard treatment today, and Rose became the first hospital to offer a less-intrusive, time-saving intraoperative option as part of Schwartzberg’s other clinical trial. After removing the tumor, Schwartzberg places a radiation source in the cavity while the incision is open and delivers about 10 to 15 minutes of radiation, which equals an entire treatment course, before removing the device and closing the incision. External radiation treatments can require five to seven weeks of nearly daily doses and include more potential side effects.
“My ultimate goal is to do both of these treatments in one setting, inserting the radiation therapy in through a probe after the laser is removed,” Schwartzberg says. “Their breast-cancer treatment is over in one day.”
Although Duckels could not be in both trials, she was a candidate for an internal radiation therapy, which also reduces side effects such as burns, because her cancer was detected early. Duckels went to the Breast Care at Red Rocks center, where radioactive seeds were inserted through a catheter that Duckels wore through an incision in her chest for five days. But the staff made the process comfortable, Duckels says, adding that she was grateful to have less-invasive options throughout her care.
Treatments are continually evolving thanks to women like Duckels, who, because of the approval process, had to undergo a traditional lumpectomy surgery as well to ensure the laser treatment was effective, Schwartzberg says. “It takes women like her to step up to the plate.”
Duckels hopes other cancer patients will benefit from her participation in the trial, just as she has reaped the rewards of medical advancements because of women before her, she says. “My grandmother never even had a mammogram. She died at 67. And my mother had a lot of problems with radiation treatment. It burned her pretty badly,” she says. “Mostly, I just want women to get checked regularly, because if it’s caught early, it’s much more treatable.”
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