Trail’s Kay Oliphant counts herself as one of the lucky ones. The 83-year-old woman has battled breast cancer in record time from diagnosis, treatment to successful outcome.
Oliphant is one in about 30 breast cancer patients in the province to receive a relatively new form of breast cancer therapy still picking up momentum in B.C.
Brachytherapy, from the Greek word brachys meaning short distance, is when the radiation source is placed inside or next to the area requiring treatment. This form of internal radiotherapy has been used for decades to treat prostate cancer but is now used to treat breast cancer at a few facilities across the country.
Oliphant said she received one of the first digital mammograms at Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital last October, when the technician discovered a little spot on her right breast. Suspicion continued over an ultrasound and as a result she had a biopsy a month later, which confirmed that it was cancer.
She had a lumpectomy in December and in the meantime a good friend (Trail’s Vicki Quiriconi) put her onto a brachytherapy pilot project out of Kelowna. The treatment was said to be most effective in women with Grade 1 or 2 breast cancer that hadn’t yet reached the lymph nodes.
A quick visit to the Sindi Ahluwalia Hawkins Centre for the Southern Interior in January for testing and Oliphant found out she was a good candidate. She was back in February to receive the one-hour procedure, which involved implanting 66 radioactive seeds smaller than a grain of rice around the cancer site.
She was discharged, spent a night in Kelowna, then headed home and back to business as usual while the radiation worked its magic by releasing an effective dose over a two-month period.
The seeds blast the area directly instead of through layers of healthy tissue, as in standard radiation treatment, explained radiation oncologist Dr. Juanita Crook when the Times caught up with her via telephone from her office at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in the Kelowna hospital.
“Quite often now it’s not necessary to treat the entire breast, you can get away with just treating that limited region of the breast and have the same good cancer cure rates and even better cosmoses,” she said.
The operating theatre didn’t intimidate Oliphant, who said the opportunity felt like a knock from somebody upstairs, especially after already battling a rare form of unrelated cancer through chemotherapy.
“The nurse warned me before I went in. She said, ‘You’re going to find that there are an awful lot of people in the operating room’ and there were,” Oliphant recalled. “They were lining the walls; they were all watching and learning and I had to walk into the room so I felt like bowing when I went in.”
Standard treatment of breast cancer involves a woman receiving a lumpectomy to remove the tumour followed by whole breast radiation, which for a period between three-and-a-half to five weeks the patient visits a cancer centre daily.
“If you live right in town that’s not so bad but if you live at a distance, then that means being away from home for a period of time while the treatments are administered,” said Crook.
This is obviously a burden for those living in rural communities, which was another reason why the quick procedure stood out to Oliphant’s sister, seniors’ advocate Margie Crawford, who continues to spread good word under the Society for the Protection and Care for Seniors.
The non-profit Greater Trail group’s mission is to advocate and pursue options for adequate, affordable, accessible and safe continuing care resources and services for local seniors.
“The reason why it’s so important to pursue is because it’s one more way in which patients in rural communities can avoid having to spend weeks on end in Kelowna away from family, a support network and possibly a job,” added Crawford.
Like any new modality brought into the province, the pilot project has been funded by donors, including triathlon dollars raised by Crook herself. While it’s not quite standard practice in B.C., Crook says they’re getting close.
“It’s very gratifying,” she said. “The people are very grateful that the treatment is available, that they’re eligible for it and that I’m able to deliver it for them.
“It’s been a very positive experience.”
Oliphant is scheduled to head back to Kelowna in mid-August for a checkup and will receive another mammogram in October in Trail.
The sisters glow with delight when they think of how thrilled their dad would be with the medical advancements of today. The late Dr. Greg Crawford was a pioneer Trail internist, who was one of the doctors in the area in the era of Dr. Daly and Dr. Coghlin.