Steamboat Springs In a dark room at Yampa Valley Medical Center, doctors spend hours carefully scanning X-ray images of the breast hoping to detect anything suspicious, anything that eventually could kill.
In offices not far away, doctors meet with the women who are diagnosed with cancer, and together, they map out a complex path of care.
And in other rooms, doctors outline diets and workout routines.
Together, they simplify the fight and boost morale.
“Patients have no idea what to do next,” YVMC Cancer Services Director Jan Fritz said about the moment a patient is diagnosed with cancer. “They're just kind of going 'OK, No. 1, I have cancer, and I didn't hear 90 percent of what you said.' We're always trying to navigate them through all of the different places they need to go.”
The medical network in place to detect and treat breast cancer in the Yampa Valley is vast, and it is growing.
Bolstered by years of research, medicines have become more targeted.
New surgeons and radiologists have arrived at YVMC.
And new technology is making it easier for doctors to detect the cancer earlier.
At the start of a fight that is at times scary, confusing and complex, doctors here continue to simplify it all to help keep their treatments closer to home.
Scary at first
The start of the battle is difficult.
“Right away, it's really scary,” Frannie Johnson, clinic manager for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said about a breast cancer diagnosis.
The cancer instantly changes lives and beckons a long list of questions.
Recognizing that women already are worrying about their health, their families and “how awful they're feeling” during cancer treatment, Johnson helps alleviate the financial worry.
As a case manager for the VNA's Women's Wellness Connection Program, she helps uninsured women between ages 40 and 64 get access to mammograms, and if cancer is detected, pay for treatment with the help of Medicaid.
The program is expected to screen as many as 300 women for breast cancer this year.
But not too long ago, even free mammograms for uninsured women were a hard sell.
“Three years ago, there was not the availability of Medicaid for breast cancer, which is a big deal,” said Gisela Garrison, director of the VNA's Community Health Center. “You didn't have a good argument to convince women to go through screening if you had to tell them, 'If this comes back positive, you're on your own.'”
This year, the VNA's Women's Wellness Connection Program is the beneficiary of more state funding to provide the screenings.
Johnson and Garrison also predict that when the VNA opens and operates the Routt County Community Health Center in Steamboat, the expanded primary care services will lead to more breast exams and early detection of cancer.
“I'm still learning what these conversations are like and how to support the women who are diagnosed,” Johnson said. "I really enjoy being a part of this process that takes a burden off of a patient's shoulders.”
Johnson said patients at the VNA who are diagnosed with breast cancer are referred to YVMC for their expanding treatment options.
A decade of progress
Sitting in a quiet waiting area at Steamboat's hospital Thursday, Fritz and Julie Isaacs, YVMC's Women's Imaging Coordinator, outlined a decade of progress in cancer detection and treatment.
The story in Routt County includes the launch of YVMC's new digital mammography machine three years ago.
“For the radiologist interpreting the images, digital mammography is a phenomenal improvement,” radiologist Malaika Thompson wrote in a Steamboat Today column last year describing the benefits of the new technology. “We now are able to manipulate the images with a click of the mouse — making them darker or lighter, magnifying certain areas and adjusting the contrast to bring out subtle differences in breast tissue.”
She added that the new machine also uses less radiation than the previous film technology.
And the advances in detection have been joined by advances in treatment.
Patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the Yampa Valley can seek out surgical treatments, chemotherapy and infusion, genetic counseling and more at the hospital.
The hospital also recently added a surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction.
And a relatively new tumor conference brings the hospital's doctors together each month to brainstorm a cancer patient's best path of care.
“All of the advances come from collaborating,” Fritz said. “We try to bring a very comprehensive and focused care to the patient. Instead of you trying to figure it out for yourself, it's kind of a seamless transition from diagnosis through treatment.”
Still, YVMC doesn't offer all forms of breast cancer treatment. Fritz said patients seeking radiation treatments for the cancer still travel to hospitals outside of the Yampa Valley.
But they aren't disconnected from home when they seek treatment elsewhere.
"I think in the big picture, we do a lot of collaboration between whatever entities we're working with,” Fritz said. “If it's Shaw (Regional Cancer Center) down in Edwards, if it's St. Mary's, if they're going to Denver, we've got ongoing communication so we know when they're there and when they're here and what kind of problems have they had. I think it has opened up a whole new network process between entities because we know we cannot do everything here.”
As they continue fostering this expanded network of cancer care in the Yampa Valley, local health care providers already are looking to the advancements of the next five years.
The hospital's cancer team is working to secure new accreditations, equipment and training.
The VNA wants more women to utilize their mammography services that can detect cancer before it becomes a serious problem.
“People want to stay close to home,” Fritz said. “They want to be treated in their hometown as much as they can. We can't do everything here, but we certainly can bring it all together and give them first-rate cancer care.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com