Optimism and a mind-over-matter disposition have long been considered some of the major catalysts for those overcoming serious illnesses.
Patti Verdugo Johnson is living proof of that. When the Ventura resident was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer last March, she adopted a simple motto.
“You have to have a sense of humor,” said the 48-year-old administrator at the agricultural research center for the University of California. “It’s ‘A bump in the road, a lump in the breast.”’
Johnson’s positive demeanor was aided in no small part by a recently introduced radiation therapy that medical professionals hope will take hold as a standard treatment for their patients in Ventura County over the next few years.
Called “breast conservation therapy,” it is a five-day procedure administering radiation to the isolated area of a woman’s breast affected by a cancerous tumor. It is viewed as a favored alternative to traditional and lengthy cancer abatementmethods, which force many women to put their lives on hold.
“Traditional therapy will always be needed, but I feel this is the wave of the future,” said Dr. Constanze Rayhrer, a Ventura breast cancer surgeon, and one of just a handful of local doctors specializing in the budding technology.
With the therapy, explained Rayhrer, a catheter with a tiny balloon attached to it is inserted into the cavity where doctors have extracted a tumor. A concentrated amount of radiation is then delivered around the edges of the balloon, into the cavity, twice a day for five days a week, a significant contrast to traditional methods that require many women to endure nearly two months of an arduous regimen of having the entire breast radiated.
Johnson began her therapy on July 14 and was finishing the final stages when she was interviewed for this story.
Introduction of the radiation therapy speaks to larger issues in today’s society. Cancer is slowly being de-stigmatized, and those who suffer from it often cannot devote time away from their careers in these rocky economic times.
For Marilyn Harris, a medical professional herself, undergoing the conservation therapy dovetailed with her role as the director of surgical services at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.
Harris says she was just simply “too busy for cancer” after being diagnosed last month with an early form of ductal carcinoma.
“We have busy lives and this made it easier,” Harris, 58, said.
According to Breastcancer.org, ductal carcinoma stays inside the milk duct of the breast in which it started. It can grow to cover a small or large area of the breast. But it does not spread outside the duct into the normal surrounding breast tissue, to the lymph nodes or to other organs.
Rayhrer contends this proactive attitude and positive mental outlook toward beating cancer, speaking in terms of the therapy, is “for the career woman who doesn’t have time for breast cancer.”
“My patients with early breast cancer consider it an episode, not something that changes their life forever,” she said.
“For me, I really didn’t have a big reaction to it,” said cancer survivor Johnson. “I’m just one of those people who wasn’t going to panic about it.”
But what Johnson and Harris have in common is that both caught their cancers early; and both were also diligent in having routine mammograms performed. The Ventura women are diligent in having a reflection of the gravitation towards breast cancer prevention. According to the American Cancer Society, women in the United States today have a 1-in-8 chance of developing invasive breast cancer, compared to a 1-in-11 risk 33 years ago.
However, the cancer society estimates 1 million women are still living with the disease and do not yet know it.
Johnson first found a lump near her right breast herself. Harris’ tumor, on the other hand, was tinier than a grain of sand, so small it could never be self-detected without the aid of a checkup.
This was the first step in determining if the women qualified for the radiation therapy. According to Rayhrer, to be a candidate, a tumor must be less than 3 centimeters. The cancer also cannot have spread to the lymph nodes. If either of these conditions has occurred, she said, doctors will pursue more aggressive treatments. Johnson and Harris were fortunate in that respect; traditional radiations, according to Rayhrer, may carry with them different side effects, ranging from extreme fatigue to the development of sarcoma — a connective tissue cancer — in patients.
The radiation therapy, under the name MammoSite, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2002 and has since been under a five-year assessment. The American Society of Breast Surgeons, Rayhrer said, includes a registry of the 38,000 breast cancer patients treated with the therapy nationwide.
In addition to the MammoSite technology, Rayhrer said, other future cancer treatments will focus on modulating the body’s immune system. One example, she noted, is cryoablation, a form of cryotherapy whereby tumors can be frozen, in turn causing cancerous cells to rupture and the formation of an immune response.
“What we can do with breast cancer these days is amazing,” she said.
Technology notwithstanding, coping with a disease like cancer all comes back to that positive mindset and good communication, noted Rayhrer. It’s seen in the likes of a weekly breast cancer support group hosted by the Ventura hospital.
“It’s very healing for them to talk about their experiences,” she said. “Patients like to share their experiences if they know it will help others.”
“You’ve got to put things in perspective,” she said. “If this is all I have to go through, then so be it. I’m just one to be positive, to be aware of other things, people around me who have gone through worse. That has helped me.”
Johnson chose to chronicle her journey toward being cancer-free with an online blog, where she has since connected with other women with similar experiences. She hopes that it will alert more women to get regular mammograms.
“It’s really triggered people to take action who haven’t in a few years,” Johnson said. “It’s a good thing to come out of it.”
More information on breast conservation therapy can be found at mammosite.com.