Alison Elliot, a nurse, knows her health is important. So when her fiftieth birthday rolled around, she scheduled a mammogram. She was called back for a second appointment, where they performed a biopsy on her breast.
"They told me my mammogram had a suspicious-looking area. There were concerns it might be cancer," she says.
The biopsy results did reveal breast cancer. The good news: the cancer was small because of the early diagnosis. However, the cancer's small size posed a challenge in itself.
Cindy Matsen, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), says the small size made it difficult to find within the breast tissue during surgery.
Standard procedure used to be inserting a wire into the breast on the day of surgery to guide doctors to the tiny cancer. "It's not particularly painful," says Dr. Matsen. "But it is uncomfortable to have a wire poking out of your breast." She says that the insertion adds anxiety to an already stressful situation for patients.
But a new procedure called radioactive seed localization could make the wire a thing of the past.
Here's how it works: the day before surgery, doctors use a needle to insert a tiny radioactive seed about the size of a grain of rice into the location of the cancer. It then gives off a signal to help surgeons locate the tumor.
"Patients no longer have to come in early and wait for surgery with a wire poking out of the breast," says Dr. Matsen. "I think it is easier for surgeons, too."
Alison was pleased to be a candidate for radioactive seed localization. "To me, it was a better option. I felt the surgeon would be able to find the tumor easier and get all the cancer out."
Alison's surgery went smoothly. The tumor and the seed were removed from her breast, and she's feeling optimistic about the future. "My next mammogram is in August. That makes me kind of nervous, but I know what to expect and am in good hands with Dr. Matsen and the people at HCI," Alison says.
Dr. Matsen says being able to catch cancers like Alison's before they grow and spread is key in the fight against cancer. Finding and removing small tumors at an early stage gives patients the best chance of a cure.
"Women don't die from cancer in their breasts. They die from cancer that spreads to other parts of the body," says Dr. Matsen.
Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.