Local hospitals offer tools to fight breast cancer

By Nell Escobar Coakley/ncoakley@cnc.com
Melrose —

As Breast Cancer Awareness month draws to a close, the battle against the disease goes on — and it’s a war being fought on all fronts by local hospitals offering everything from standard mammogram screenings to genetic testing to building new facilities for future patients.

And it all starts with outreach, something Lisa Montuori Trimble knows all too well about. As the director of health promotion and community outreach for the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), Trimble said getting women in the door and making services available is really the key to healthy breast care.

“We work very hard to make access available,” said Trimble. “A lot of women are aware of [breast cancer], but there are definitely newer populations of women where the message doesn’t get to them. The challenge is to overcome barriers keeping them from following through, like language or transportation or lack of childcare. Our goal is to help support them.”

CHA worked with the American Cancer Society, as well as the Susan G. Komen Foundation, to develop the Breast Health Connection in order to reach lower-income patients and those who are uninsured or may not have a primary care doctor.

“We help them navigate their care,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a challenge if you don’t have a primary doctor. We try to help make it easy for these women.”

Community partners

The hospital system, which includes Cambridge Hospital, Somerville Hospital, Whidden Hospital in Everett and a clinic in Malden, has also partnered with the Malden YMCA, Encore Care and the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers in pushing the message.

Like other local hospitals, CHA offers standard mammogram screenings, digital mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs. But Chief of Hematology and Oncology Dr. C. Douglas Taylor said CHA also offers a team approach to patient treatment, where women not only meet with a breast surgeon, but also a radiologist, social worker, nutritionist and nurse, among others.

“Many centers do this team approach,” Taylor said. “We just happen to have a very effective one.”

Taylor said the Cambridge Breast Center is multidisciplinary facility supported by the Avon Foundation, which offers screenings and rapid response to an abnormality.

The center, operating the last five years, was the first in Massachusetts to receive accreditation from the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers in 2009. The same year, CHA’s imaging center was named a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology.

Trimble said six years ago, CHA identified the need to improve its services and has seen a dramatic 40 percent increase in patients.

“We have really great access,” she said. “If you need an appointment, you should be able to get one fairly quickly.”

But Taylor said it’s CHA’s commitment to continually improving the quality of its services at the center and throughout the system that really shows the system’s commitment to breast health. He said CHA not only offers access, education and a team approach to a newly diagnosed patient, but there is also a genetics testing program where women can explore their family history and judge their risk of developing breast cancer.

“If women are found, through genetic testing, to have a high risk, there’s a menu of options offered to them,” Taylor said. “With drugs, they can reduce their risk by 50 percent.”

Taylor added at the moment, CHA is working on bringing many of the services offered at its Cambridge location to the Whidden in order to serve a bigger population.

Which is exactly what Winchester Hospital is doing. Dr. Arlan Fuller Jr., vice president of clinical oncology services, said Winchester is currently in the middle of a project that, when finished, will yield a top-notch cancer care center.

“We offer a quality of care as well as a convenience of care,” Fuller said. “Once there’s a diagnosis, there’s a straightforward sequence of care and 99 percent of it can be delivered in the community.”

Treatment alternatives

Fuller said the issue for community hospitals has mostly been how to set themselves aside. In the area of breast cancer, many offer the same quality care the big hospitals in Boston do, but Winchester is banking on providing access to patients and caregivers at its new 620 Washington St. location, which is scheduled to open next summer.

Bringing all its services to one location will certainly offer Winchester’s patients ease of treatment, but Fuller said the hospital’s services go further. Winchester’s Community Health Institute also offers a team approach, much like CHA, but Fuller said there are additional specialties once thought of as alternative forms of medicine, such as acupuncture, massage and reiki, which are now available to cancer patients.

“Anything to help the patient,” Fuller said. “There’s been research about the benefits of these treatments.”

Fuller said Winchester’s future will not only include continued educational outreach and the new cancer center, but also a geneticist. He, like Taylor, agreed the factors that put women at risk for breast cancer, such as a family history, can often be tackled by helping women better care for themselves.

And caring for themselves is something Winchester and every other hospital encourages.

“Clearly, it’s important to promote the services which are offered,” he said. “Women need to know they need to get an annual mammogram if they are over the age of 40 and that there are programs to provide one if they cannot afford it.”

That’s news Hallmark Health also wants to spread. Jesse Kawa, communications specialist for public and media relations, said earlier this spring Hallmark received a sizeable grant from the Massachusetts Susan G. Komen For the Cure affiliate.

Kawa said the grant will allow Hallmark to offer a three-part education and support program for women ages 20-39 in Burlington, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Wilmington, Winchester and Woburn.

“The goal is to educate them about breast health,” Kawa said. “The best defense for fighting breast cancer is early detection.”

She said Hallmark hopes to get women in the habit of monthly breast exams and helping them recognize potential problems or see if they are in an at-risk category.

“We want to get them educated early so that breast health is on their minds,” Kawa said.

Respectful care

Hallmark, which has two hospital locations at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford and Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Melrose, also has several smaller sites throughout its service area, such as its Cancer Care Center in Stoneham, that provide screenings by licensed and state certified radiologists and technicians.

Kawa added all Hallmark’s mammography sites are licensed by the state and accredited by the American College of Radiology.

“Whether it’s a breast MRI or mammogram, they’re all looked at by a board certified radiologist,” Kawa said. “What that means for our patients is the highest quality and most respectful care possible.”

Kawa added Hallmark has also developed a service that allows women to make online appointments for a standard mammogram screening at hallmarkhealth.org, which makes a difference to busy women.

“You’re busy at work and then you come home and you’re busy making dinner or putting the kids to bed and by the time you remember you want to make an appointment, what are you going to do? All the offices are closed at that time of night,” she said. “This service allows you to go online and make the appointment when it’s convenient for you.”

Whether it’s a new facility, new staff or new programs, all the hospitals continue to update and improve the care they offer to women. And they all agree on one thing.

“The focus is to offer more services,” Trimble said. “We are committed to bringing more to our community and our service areas.”

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