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Breast Cancer Patient Praises ‘Excellent Care, Close to Home’

May 10, 2011

"I feel as if I am the ‘poster child’ for getting an annual mammogram!"

Michele White is grateful she went to the Washington Women’s Center last summer for an annual mammogram despite new recommendations issued by the United States Preventive Services Task Force that women aged 50 to 74 who are not considered "high risk" should have mammograms every two years, rather than every year. 

"Even if insurance hadn’t covered it, I was determined to get my annual mammogram," she asserts.

The 54-year-old realtor and Japanese language tutor is even more grateful for the comprehensive, compassionate care she received after the mammogram showed a suspicious area on one breast.

"After I had a mammogram last June, Kathy Hesser, the Women’s Center Nurse Coordinator called me back to have additional mammography views," she recalls. "Right after they took the images, the radiologist – Dr. Sunil Upender – came in and said he saw something that was bothering him, and that it should be investigated. He didn’t insist on doing a needle biopsy right away, but I sensed it was really his recommendation, so I chose to have the biopsy."

White’s biopsy was performed four days later, and the diagnosis came the next day. The doctors had been looking for a ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is a non-invasive tumor that hasn’t spread beyond the milk duct into any surrounding breast tissue. In addition to the DCIS, however, they also found a Stage 1 malignancy, measuring .8 millimeters.

"From that moment on, everything went very quickly," White says.

Three days later she met with the Women’s Center Medical Director, Dr. William Dugoni, who would serve as her surgeon and medical team captain. White then met privately with the Breast Tumor Board (Breast Care Conference) comprised of all the physicians involved in her case: Dr. Dugoni, Dr. Upender, radiation oncologist Dr. Ranu Grewal-Bahl, medical oncologist Dr. Vandana Sharma and pathologist Dr. Jessie Xiong.

"Amazingly, I left Dr. Dugoni’s office after the first visit with everything all scheduled for me – pre-op, surgery and post-op appointments as well as consultations with Drs. Bahl and Sharma, the Breast Care Conference and Cancer Class," White says. "At a very difficult time for me, Dr. Dugoni’s office took care of all of these details. Words cannot describe the feeling of relief I felt at having everything in place."

"Like other accredited Breast Centers, Washington Women’s Center has a Breast Tumor Board that meets twice a month to discuss patient cases," says Hesser, who acted as a "patient navigator" to coordinate all aspects of White’s care. "We’ve taken that a step further, though, in scheduling private sessions of the Tumor Board, called the Breast Care Conference, for breast cancer patients as well as their spouses and other support people.

"The Breast Care Conference meeting covers all aspects of the patient’s treatment – diagnostic radiology, pathology, chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy," Hesser adds. "A plastic surgeon also attends sessions when the patient is a candidate for breast reconstruction. Participating in Breast Care Conference meetings allows patients to hear the whole story and understand their diagnosis and treatment options, which takes a lot of the fear out of it. That’s something that is not readily available at university hospitals and other large medical centers in the Bay Area."

White brought her husband, sister and three friends to the meeting. The doctors introduced themselves and explained their roles in her treatment. Then they allowed White and her group to ask questions.

"The meeting of the Breast Care Conference was the most amazing thing I’ve experienced," she says. "The doctors answered my sister’s and friends’ questions just as openly as they answered mine and my husband’s. They made all of us feel empowered. We felt like we were all partners with the doctors in pursuit of the same goal. I knew the doctors had my best interests at heart and that they saw me as a person, not just a medical case. I walked out of the Breast Care Conference meeting feeling calm and good."

In addition to the Breast Care Conference, White attended a pre-surgery class conducted by the Women’s Center for breast cancer patients. The class – which was started because so many patients had questions about what would happen before, during and after surgery – is offered twice a month, but the center also offers individual classes if needed.

"The pre-surgery class was very helpful," White says. "They let us know what to expect and covered everything I would need for post-surgery recovery. They even provided a ‘Cancer 101’ organizer to help keep track of appointments, procedures and medications."

Her lumpectomy surgery was followed by 33 radiation treatments – scheduled every day at the Washington Radiation Oncology Center, a seven-minute drive from White’s home in Niles.

"If I had driven one hour each way to a university hospital for radiation treatments, it would have been a huge commitment of time," White notes. "It was great to be so close to home. Plus, the people at the Radiation Oncology Center are the best, including Dr. Bahl and Dr. Michael Bastasch. Dr. Bahl has such a nurturing spirit. The energy there was so positive and friendly, I actually looked forward to going there every morning. It was like visiting my friends."

Although White’s initial treatment plan did not call for chemotherapy, medical oncologist Dr. Vandana Sharma recommended that she undergo targeted gene therapy along with chemotherapy to help eradicate any stray cancer cells.

Once again, White was impressed with the quality of care.

"The staff in Dr. Sharma’s office was amazing," she comments. "They got the chemo and gene therapy going quickly. The nurse and phlebotomist were so gentle that I didn’t even mind all the needle sticks. Dr. Sharma was so good at explaining everything. She was very down-to-earth and direct, with no pretense and no talking down to me."

Throughout her treatment, White continued yoga and Pilates mat exercises and tried to stay active to keep her body strong. She finished her chemotherapy treatments on December 16, and by December 27th, she was skiing with her family. She notes that she went skiing again over President’s weekend in February and was back to her old form.

"I feel like myself again," she says. "If I had waited a year to have that mammogram, the tumor probably would have been a higher stage and might have metastasized.

"It was a great experience in a bad situation, thanks to how I was treated by my team, including all the doctors and the tireless dynamo Kathy Hesser, who was always available to answer questions and help me navigate the system," she adds. "I’ve known other people who’ve gone through cancer treatments at other hospitals, including university hospitals, but I am so grateful I was able to have my treatment at Washington Hospital, close to home. Every step of the way, people showed concern for me not just as a piece of paper or a number, but as a person. I will be forever grateful."

So Much More Than a Breast Center
The Washington Women’s Center offers a wide range of programs and services to help women lead healthier lives. To learn more, visit www.whhs.com/womenscenter or call (510) 608-1301.

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