Many cancer screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies, stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, but cancer did not.
Several studies on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care in the United States found decreases in cancer screenings, resulting in some early cancers going undetected.
Thankfully, Mary Beth Grassi kept her routine mammogram screening and now she can call herself a breast cancer survivor.
The 62-year-old Methuen, Massachusetts resident, who has a family history of breast cancer on her father’s side, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2020.
“I was stunned,” Grassi said. “I panicked at first, which I’m sure is normal for a lot of women to do, but I knew I needed to listen to my physician and get my next step underway.”
Her next step was a lumpectomy, surgery to remove the tumor in her left breast.
“I can keep up with the time because all this happened near the holidays,” said Grassi. “As if the holidays and a worldwide pandemic weren’t enough stress, I was diagnosed with breast cancer around Thanksgiving and had my lumpectomy three days before Christmas.”
After her lumpectomy, her surgeon, Nancy Landay, M.D. with Lawrence General Hospital, recommended radiation therapy to destroy any residual cancer cells that may be left in her breast to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
“My surgeon is the reason why I know about Dr. Fung,” said Grassi. “She spoke so highly of Dr. Fung and radiation therapy treatment at Alliance Radiation Oncology that I decided to meet her for myself and get more information about my treatment options.”
Less than two weeks later, on January 11, 2021, Mary Beth met with Claire Y. Fung, M.D., a radiation oncologist at Alliance Radiation Oncology at Anna Jaques Hospital and a member of Radiation Oncology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and was very impressed and pleased with her consultation.
“It was an ugly, colorless, winter day and I was nervous about my appointment, but all that changed after I met Dr. Fung,” said Grassi. “Not only was I thankful that she let me bring my husband with me, something a lot of physicians were not allowing due to COVID-19, but she took her time answering all my questions and talked to us for an hour. She was so compassionate and knowledgeable and just affirmed that I was where I needed to be and that I was making the right decision.”
Mary Beth was also deeply touched by the kindness Dr. Fung extended to her husband.
“My husband lost his mother to breast cancer, so he was understandably very worried about me,” Grassi said. “Dr. Fung addressed this and made us both feel better by explaining the treatment process and what to expect. She helped ease our worry because she took the mystery out of it.”
On February 8, Mary Beth went through simulation, a process that involves a CT scan and skin markings for radiation treatment planning. A week later, she had her first radiation treatment.
Since Mary Beth’s cancer was in her left breast, she had concerns about radiation potentially causing damage to her heart. The left breast is closer to the heart than the right breast, and for women receiving radiation for left breast cancer, a portion of the heart may be in the radiation field. Radiation to the heart may increase the risk of heart disease, so imagine Mary Beth’s relief when she learned of the deep inspiration breath-hold (DIBH) technology at Alliance Radiation Oncology to protect the heart.
When you take a deep breath in, your lungs expand with air and your heart moves away from the breast. With the DIBH technique, radiation is delivered only when the patient is in the inspiration phase of the breathing cycle, thereby keeping the heart out of the radiation path. DIBH is a proven method to reduce radiation dose to the heart, as well as the lung.
In early 2021, Alliance Radiation Oncology at Anna Jaques Hospital was the first in the Greater Boston area to incorporate the C-RAD suite of surface motion tracking and workflow optimization into their treatments. C-RAD’s advanced technology makes it possible to provide DIBH in a highly accurate and consistent manner. To ensure a patient-friendly experience, C-RAD even synchronizes the room lights to the patient’s breathing cycle—blue when the patient is in free-breathing mode and green when the breathing cycle is in the ideal deep-inspiration phase for beam delivery.
“I really liked the setup of the C-RAD,” Grassi said. “From the deep inspirational breathing to the visual cues from the different colored lights, I felt like I was an active participant in my treatment and had some control over my care. The state-of-the-art technology also made me confident that I was getting the best and safest treatment possible.”
Mary Beth had a full month of treatment. She went every day Monday through Friday for a total of 20 treatments. She said the treatments were easy, only lasted about 15 minutes, and that the treatment team made her feel comfortable.
“I have rheumatoid arthritis,” explained Grassi. “Knowing that I have RA, the team did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable and able to receive my treatments and I appreciated that.”
Mary Beth’s last treatment was on March 12 and today she feels great. She is in remission and has nothing but positive things to say about her time at Alliance Radiation Oncology at Anna Jaques Hospital.
“I would, without a doubt, recommend Alliance Radiation Oncology to others facing a cancer diagnosis,” Mary Beth said. “Dr. Fung and the entire center made a tough situation much easier than I thought possible and I thank them for that.”