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Targeting Cancer: Breast surgeons launch program to help patients identify cancer risk

(Photo courtesy Oregon Surgical Wellness)
(Photo courtesy Oregon Surgical Wellness)
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Approximately 5-10% of breast cancer cases can be linked to hereditary genetic mutations. Physicians at Oregon Surgical Wellness in Springfield are helping to identify patients who may be at a higher risk for developing breast cancer and offering them tools and information to protect themselves.

Cevia Yellin is one of those patients. Two decades ago, her family participated in a cancer risk study through the National Institutes of Health, and she learned that she carries the BRCA1 gene, the same genetic mutation that is responsible for her father, grandmother and other family members developing cancer.

“When I initially agreed to participate in the study, I was doing it to help other people,” Cevia says. “But once I found out I was a carrier of the mutation, it was suddenly all about me. I was told at one point that I have an 87% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster emotionally.”

Identifying cancer risk

Inspired by Cevia and patients like her, breast surgeons Christine Kollmorgen and Winnie Henderson at Oregon Surgical Wellness developed and launched the first comprehensive high-risk breast clinic program in Lane County. The program allows them to screen and identify patients who may be genetically predisposed to breast cancer and offer them genetic testing and licensed counseling through a partnership with Ambry Genetics.

“If we can identify a patient’s risk, then we can develop a risk management strategy for them, which may include prophylactic surgery or more close monitoring and following. And that’s pretty empowering,” Dr. Kollmorgen says.

Patients who believe they may be genetically predisposed to cancer can request a referral to Oregon Surgical Wellness. The patient will then receive a text screening tool which enables them to answer a series of questions right from their phone and based on the algorithm of their answers to those questions, they may or may not be a candidate for genetic testing. The test is a simple blood test done in the clinic and Dr. Kollmorgen says results are typically received within three weeks.

“Once the results are back and it’s been confirmed that they carry a genetic mutation, we take care of the rest. We’ll have a post consultation with them and they have access to true genetic counselors which are rare to find in the age of telehealth. We are right there to walk them through the process and help them make decisions that are right for them to help reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.”

Dr. Henderson says approximately 80% of people diagnosed with breast cancer qualified for genetic testing, but they didn’t have it done. “If we can identify these individuals and help them prevent their breast cancer, we are going to save so many lives.”

Hidden scar breast surgery

In addition to their high-risk breast clinic program, doctors Kollmorgen and Henderson are certified hidden scar breast surgeons, which means if a patient decides to have prophylactic surgery, or if they have a type of breast cancer that makes them a good candidate for this technique, the surgeons can place the incision in a location that is hard to see so the scar is not visible when the incision heals. As a result, the patient has little to no visible reminder of the surgery or their cancer.

“Scars are a reminder of trauma,” says Dr. Henderson. “Every time a breast cancer patient sees the scar from their surgery, it is a reminder of what they went through. Not having a visible scar allows them to live their life without that reminder.”

While some people may see breast surgery scars as a symbol of beating cancer, studies show that they can significantly impact a woman’s psychological and emotional recovery and can have an impact on self-confidence, intimacy and body image.

Dr. Kollmorgen says, “What’s wonderful about the hidden scar techniques is that they can be used with mastectomy, where we’re removing the entire breast, and they can also be used in breast conservation with the goal being to hide all visible reminders of the fact that you had breast cancer.”

Supporting cancer patients in the community

Doctors Henderson and Kollmorgen have been longtime supporters of the Oregon Cancer Foundation, which provides financial and emotional support, as well as education, to cancer survivors in the community.

Displayed in the Oregon Surgical Wellness lobby is the clinic’s 2021 Bras for Cause entry, one of 16 bras created by businesses and individuals in Lane County that will be used to raise money for the foundation throughout the month pf October.

The clinic’s Bras for Cause entry is titled, “Wellness Wins,” a true testament to the staff’s desire to help support their patients’ overall wellness, not just treat their cancer.

“We truly believe that when ‘I’ becomes ‘we,’ ‘illness’ becomes ‘wellness,’ says Dr. Kollmorgen. “And overall wellness for our patients is our goal.”

Cevia says it isn’t easy knowing she’s predisposed to developing breast cancer; however, she feels empowered knowing that she has options. She’s made lifestyle changes focusing on nutrition, exercise and stress management, and she never misses her yearly screenings. Cevia underwent surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes, which significantly decreased her risk of ovarian cancer and reduced her risk of breast cancer by 50%. She is now considering having her breasts removed to further protect herself.

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“Dr. Kollmorgen is coaching me and supporting me through that decision process. I feel fortunate that I have this information and that I found out. I have peace of mind knowing that I’m doing what I can to reduce my risk for cancer.”

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