Learning curve

New machine

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— A dedicated group of women dreamed up a grand scheme last year.

They would raise enough money to purchase equipment that would provide local medical professionals with a less-invasive tool to detect breast cancer.

The Dream Team raised the necessary funds at the 2001 Ski Town USA Golf Classic to bring the stereotactic breast biopsy procedure to the Yampa Valley Medical Center.

The $165,000 piece of technology was made available at the hospital in March.

Almost 30 women have since taken advantage of the nonsurgical procedure.

"It's a very exciting procedure," said Julie Isaacs, a radiologic technologist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Isaacs estimates the hospital gives about 160 mammograms every month. Mammograms show possible abnormalities on the breast that could merit a closer look.

About 70 percent to 80 percent of abnormalities that show up on mammograms are benign, said Fred Jones, head radiologist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

But a biopsy of breast tissue, Jones said, is the only way to confirm whether cancer is present.

Stereotactic breast biopsies give staff at Yampa Valley Medical Center the means to accurately sample tissue from abnormalities identified on a mammogram without surgery. "Stereotactic" means precise location in space.

Because a majority of women who undergo breast biopsies do not have cancer, but rather a benign breast condition, the new procedure spares them the scarring and discomfort that often follows surgery.

Until last spring, local women had to travel to Denver, Grand Junction or Fort Collins if they wanted to avoid a surgical breast biopsy.

Stereotactic breast biopsies have been available to women since the late 1980s, Jones said.

"This is nothing new," he said.

But localizing the procedure eliminates a trip and increases the comfort level for women because they are in a more familiar environment, he said.

A surgeon makes a 1-inch to 3-inch incision in the breast during an open surgical biopsy. The incision, about the size of a golf ball, is then closed with stitches.

During a stereotactic breast biopsy, the breast is compressed and injected with local anesthetic. Images are taken at different angles to create a triangle that gives Jones the exact coordinates of the abnormality.

"It's high school trigonometry," he said.

Those coordinates tell him where to place a needle that removes multiple tissue samples without removing the needle from the breast.

Jones removes 12 to 15 tissue samples. The process takes about 10 minutes.

The needle also leaves a tiny metal marker in the breast to mark the exact location of the abnormality.

The patient sits upright during the entire procedure, which takes about an hour.

Isaacs said the radiology staff provides patients with plenty of information and support before, during, and after the procedure.

Jean Morrissey, 70, is a member of the Dream Team and one of the first women to undergo the procedure at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

When a mammogram in April revealed some suspicious abnormalities, she was scheduled for the procedure.

Tissue samples from the biopsy revealed Morrissey had breast cancer, and she underwent a lumpectomy a month later to remove the cancerous tissue, followed by weeks of radiation.

Before she underwent the procedure in Steamboat, the thought of doctors finding cancer in her breast scared her.

But the friendly, recognizable faces of local medical staff helped calm some of her fears.

"If I had to go down to Denver, I probably would have dragged my heels a lot more," she said of scheduling the biopsy.

Breast cancer is an emotional issue, Morrissey said, and she hopes more women can take some comfort in knowing they don't have to venture far from home to get the minimally painless procedure done.

She said she had to get over her own emotional fears last spring.

Now she is undergoing reconstruction.

Jones agreed that women might hesitate because they don't know what a biopsy might reveal.

"Fear of the unknown is the big concern," he said.

But women cannot define themselves by the physical scars left in the wake of breast cancer, Morrissey said.

"Life goes on," she said. "Putting your head in a hole doesn't mean the world stops around you."

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