For most breast cancer patients, surgery is the first leg of treatment.
“Because not only does it treat the primary cancer, meaning to remove the tumors, but it also gives us answer by looking at the lymph nodes,” says Dr. Rie Aihara, surgical oncologist on medical staff at Lee Memorial Health System. “And some of the answers we get from surgery actually dictate what kind of therapy would come next.”
Once the path becomes clear, the baton is passed to a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, or both. In best circumstances they work as a team, as is the case within the Regional Cancer Center’s multi-disciplinary breast cancer clinic.
“We’re looking at the same things. We’re able to discuss, really ask all the questions, really bring our thoughts together. So not only is it faster, but I think the quality is much better,” says Dr. Aihara.
Women are empowered with choices when it comes to surgery. Based on the nature of their cancer and personal preference, they may opt to remove a portion of breast, one breast or both if they have genetic risk.
“We do see a lot of women who choose a double mastectomy, especially in the younger population because they have so many years to think about recurrences and things like that. And we always emphasize if there’s only cancer in one area, certainly if it’s treatable by lumpectomy. That’s what we would advise.”
Surgery is often the end of the treatment road. A majority of women chose to undergo reconstruction. Many times it starts during a mastectomy using tissue expanders and is completed once they reach the finish line.
“A lot of people come in with this horrible image of a mastectomy that they used to do years ago and once we sit down with them, show them pictures, a lot of people are extremely relieved and really have a positive attitude going forth,” Dr. Aihara says.
For these reasons, the surgical segment is often the anchor in this relay for life.