Shortly after losing her husband to cancer in 1999, Lavaan Stutzman found herself in a fight of her own when a routine mammogram revealed a malignant tumor. Six months later, she discovered another rapidly growing tumor in her other breast during a monthly breast lump self-exam.
After defeating both rounds of breast cancer, she speaks glowingly of her experiences at Piper Breast Center, a program of the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
"My doctor and the Breast Center staff members were wonderful," Stutzman said. "They really paid attention to my questions and concerns. And they made an effort to create a caring environment where I felt at home."
While a patient at Piper Breast Center, Stutzman was in a clinical trial that led to a new standard for breast cancer care.
Stutzman was one of the first patients to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy as part of a study led by Daniel Dunn, MD. Dunn was one of the first surgeons in the region to use the advanced technique to determine if breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Traditional methods require the removal of all of a patient's lymph nodes. Sentinel lymph node biopsy requires the removal of only the first lymph node to which cancer typically spreads. A pathologist stands by to examine the removed node for signs of cancer. If the pathologist does not detect cancer cells, the other lymph nodes do not need to be removed. This significantly reduces the risk of side effects, such as swelling (lymphedema), nerve damage, pain and infection.
"For me, it meant a faster recovery time and fewer side effects," said Stutzman.
For breast cancer patients across the nation, the Piper Breast Center study led to better care.
"In six years, sentinel lymph node biopsy has moved from clinical research to our standard of care," says Dunn. "It's changed the way we treat patients with breast cancer."
Stutzman was so pleased with the care she received that she funded the creation of a brochure that explains sentinel node biopsy to patients. It was her way of giving back to the Piper Breast Center staff who "has given me so much."
Piper Breast Center; Abbott Northwestern Hospital Foundation, 2006 report to donors; Abbott Northwestern Today, summer 2003
Timothy Sielaff, MD, PhD, FACS, president, Virginia Piper Cancer Institute