A Clear View to treat breast cancer

New digital mammography machine, now in action in Cranbrook, will mean fewer women die from breast cancer, doctors say.

Top: The clarity of mammography scans is vastly improved by the new digital mammography machine at East Kootenay Regional Hospital. This pictures show a scan of the same woman’s breast. At left is a scan using the old analogue machine developed on film

Top: The clarity of mammography scans is vastly improved by the new digital mammography machine at East Kootenay Regional Hospital. This pictures show a scan of the same woman’s breast. At left is a scan using the old analogue machine developed on film

Tears were flowing, hugs were given freely and celebration was in the air in a narrow hallway at East Kootenay Regional Hospital on Thursday, March 7.

It was an open house for the new digital mammography machine now in service at the hospital, which was bought and paid for through the A Clear View campaign by East Kootenay Foundation for Health (EKFH).

The $1 million campaign was achieved in a little over 11 months thanks to the dedication of EKFH staff and board, local service clubs, the business community and individual contributors.

EKFH executive director Donna Grainger said that although the program launched in the fall of 2011, fundraising actually began in April 2011.

“We started writing letters, making phone calls and telling our stories,” Grainger remembered.

“The question we asked throughout this campaign was: is there anyone who has not been affected by someone having breast cancer?”

Past chair of the EKFH board, Linda Berukoff, said community support for the campaign was overwhelming.

“Basic health care is a given in B.C. Excellence in health care is a challenge. It is very evident that this is a challenge that the people of the East Kootenay are willing to take in hand,” said Berukoff.

“What an amazing, heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking journey this has been. Now it’s time to celebrate.”

Anthea Gill, Interior Health’s Professional Practice Leader, acknowledged the hard work Grainger put into the campaign.

“There are hardly words to express how grateful I am,” she said.

“Remember that someone you know or someone you love will benefit from this equipment. They will all have a chance of beating cancer,” Gill said.

The new digital mammography machine arrived in late January and it was put into service right away. Now up to 30 women a day can have breast screenings done.

Dr. Julie Nicol, head of the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging department, said the machine has three uses: diagnostic imaging, a screening centre, and stereotactic biopsies.

While the machine works in a similar way to the one it replaced, the quality of the images is vastly improved. The old, analogue machine, Dr. Nicol said, still gave adequate screenings, but the images were developed on film and were not nearly as clear. What’s more, each image took around two minutes to develop, during which time the patient was being compressed, an uncomfortable experience. The digital machine instantly displays the scan.

It also rises and lowers so patients can sit and even lie down while undergoing a mammography, rather than only stand.

Most significantly, soon the Diagnostic Imaging department will be able to use the machine to conduct stereotactic biopsies. At the moment, patients must choose between travelling to Nelson or Calgary for this service, or having a lumpectomy surgery to test whether a suspicious lump is a cancer.

“It can save patients a surgery because instead of having open surgery for an area that looks suspicious, we can inject a needle to diagnose a cancer pre-operatively,” said Dr. Nicol.

“Stereotactic biopsy is minimally invasive. If it turns out to be breast cancer, surgeons can do one surgery to remove it. If not, it is less invasive to prove it.

“Knowing how much easier this is on patients than a lumpectomy makes it feel like a really great thing.”

Now, breast cancer patients can have diagnostic screening done in Cranbrook, they can have a cancerous breast operated on, and they can receive chemotherapy here.

“There is just so much more we are able to do locally for treatment,” said Dr. Nicol.

“The goal is to find breast cancer at the smallest size possible. If we do that, it is at an early stage, it can receive early treatment, and ultimately there is a better outcome. The bottom line is fewer deaths from cancer.”

Dr. Nicol encourages women throughout the East Kootenay, from Golden to Elkford to Creston, to consider making the trip to use the digital mammography machine.

“I encourage women in the entire region to come here for screening. This machine is for the whole area, not just for Cranbrook. If you are willing to make the trip, come and use it,” said Dr. Nicol.

To make an appointment, contact the B.C. Screening Mammography Program toll-free at 1-800-663-9203.