Bartlett offers new service to detect cancer

Patients no longer have to travel to Anchorage, Seattle for biopsies

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2004

Thanks to Bartlett Regional Hospital's new breast cancer detection equipment, Julie Millar didn't have to fly to Anchorage for the service.

Millar, 61, of Juneau, is one of four patients so far who have used Bartlett's stereotactic mammography unit. The unit performs biopsies on women who appear to have abnormal breast tissue based on the results of a mammogram.

"It was nice to have the option to do the lesser invasive diagnostic stuff first," Millar said Thursday.

Before Bartlett got the unit, women had the choice of having biopsy surgery in Juneau or traveling to Anchorage or Seattle, the closest locations that have the stereotactic unit.

Last fall when Millar had her annual mammogram, doctors saw abnormal-looking tissue in her left breast. Millar was considering having a breast biopsy at Anchorage Regional Hospital, but Bartlett doctors told her she would not be in any danger to wait until they could offer the service.

A mammogram takes images of the breast. A biopsy involves inserting a needle into the breast to take tissue samples for closer examination.

Millar had a breast biopsy at Bartlett on April 1. The whole procedure lasted a couple of hours and she was able to go home that day, she said.

"The procedure itself was very easy and the personnel were great," Millar said. "It wasn't an unpleasant experience at all."

Doctors found no cancer, but felt she still had enough abnormal cells to warrant further examination. On May 4, she underwent one-hour biopsy surgery and doctors once again did not find any cancer. They concluded the abnormal-looking cells were really calcium deposits, she said. This October she will have a follow-up mammogram.

While Millar did have biopsy surgery, the new equipment will allow many women to avoid the invasive procedure, said Bartlett mammography coordinator and MRI technician Melisa Morris. The hospital conducted at least 33 biopsy surgeries in 2003, Morris said. Bartlett did 2,416 mammograms last year, not including its mobile service that travels around Southeast, she said.

The unit is especially important, Morris said, because most women will test negative for cancer and not have had to go through surgery, Morris said.

Of all biopsies done, about 75 to 80 percent will be negative for cancer, said radiologist Dr. Bill Richey.

The $150,000 unit includes an ultrasound attachment that examines suspicious-looking breast tissue. It is the most modern equipment of its kind and was manufactured by Lorad of Danbury, Conn., said Diagnostic Imaging Manager Gumesindo Rosales. Bartlett started offering the service in March.

The unit is designed so a woman lies on her stomach and places a breast through a hole. The breast is clamped and images are taken. Then a needle is placed on the machine and electronically lined up to extract breast tissue from precise areas that doctors deem suspicious. A pathologist looks at the tissue pieces under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.

"We're probably going to save more women's lives and have less mastectic diseases because we've found it earlier," Richey said.

The needle creates an incision small enough to be covered with tape, Morris said. The procedure is not invasive and generally requires no stitches.

"This is just an easy, convenient way for a patient instead of going to surgery," Morris said.

Studies have shown that the anxiety level for women facing biopsies is the same as for abdominal surgery, Richey said. Having a soft, comfortable atmosphere is important for the patient, he said.

The unit is temporarily in the basement of the administration building. Within weeks, the hospital will move the unit to a more appropriate location in the radiology department, Patient Care Administrator Sheryl Washburn said.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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