The battle against breast cancer rages on, but there have been many advancements over the last two decades – especially in the Ozarks. In 1993, Mercy Hospital Springfield (formerly St. John’s Hospital) sought out a breast imaging radiologist who could help launch a breast cancer center, which is now marking a 20-year milestone.
“To have a world class breast center, you need a bunch of puzzle pieces: plastics, oncology, surgery, pathology, and more. It turns out I was the last piece of the puzzle,” recalled Dr. Gregston, who left his Oklahoma practice in the early 90’s to pioneer the Mercy Breast Center. “We found an empty space on the ground floor of the hospital for the center. It was obvious from the start that it was the best space at the time. We were on track for an opening in April 1994.”
Equipment was ordered and staff hired as Dr. Gregston oversaw big changes in breast imaging, diagnosis and treatment. “It was a big task, monitoring the changeover from most biopsies being done with surgery to essentially all of them being done by needle biopsies by radiologists.” Dr. Gregston’s team also evolved, with the additions of Drs. Kathleen Gafarian and Karen Baker.
“What we do today doesn’t even resemble what we did in 1995, when I started,” said Dr. Gafarian, the current medical director of Mercy Breast Center. “The first big change was switching from analog imaging to digital imaging. It took a while because there were so many machines at so many facilities, and the process wasn’t mainstream yet.” Meanwhile, breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was becoming more prevalent. “With that process, it became clear that high-risk patients would really benefit,” added Dr. Gafarian. “They’re designated due to family history. They may not have breast cancer at the time of their screening, but MRIs are such sensitive tools that if we can identify and screen in addition to a mammogram, patients would benefit.”
“Eventually we outgrew our space at the hospital,” said Dr. Gregston. “We’re now part of the C.H. ‘Chub’ O’Reilly Cancer Center just a few hundred feet away.” With much more room, patients at various levels can be routed to more specialized locations. “We were able to speed up care. At first it took an average of 43 days between getting a mammogram to receiving a diagnosis. We got that down to 15 days by just working on the process.”
The center now offers screening and diagnostic mammography, breast ultrasound, breast MRI guided biopsies, genetic counseling and testing, stereotactic biopsies, ultrasound-guided breast biopsies, needle localizations, breast MRI, mobile mammography services, as well as patient, family and community education.
“We also have nurse navigation for our cancer patients to facilitate their journey from diagnosis through treatment,” said Dr. Gafarian. “We now have a resource center, a library, psychological counseling for families, dietitians and financial counselors. “And we work very closely with the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks.”
Mercy Breast Center has also received many accolades since 1994, including a spot in SELF Magazine’s “Top 10 Breast Centers in America, and a designation as a Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology (ACR).
“We wrote our own program to track statistics,” explained Dr. Gregston. “We started tracking everything and comparing that to other facilities we knew were really good. Of course, these days there are programs pre-packaged.” The work done by Mercy’s radiologists even captured the attention of Laszlo Tabar, a global pioneer in modern mammographic screening. “He came here and visited for a few days, saw our stats, and asked us to start speaking at his conferences. We also ended up speaking at Johns Hopkins University.”
Mercy Breast Center now provides 30,000 women a year with education, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. “Women need to have yearly mammograms, beginning at age 40,” said Dr. Joel Cook, Mercy Breast Center’s newest radiologist. “Anyone who has a first-degree relative with breast cancer, they’ll want to come in ten years sooner. So if your mother had breast cancer at 42, you’d want to start at 32.” Women should schedule a mammogram if their breasts are tender. The visit should complement clinical breast examination by your physician and your own breast self-examination. “The key is to learn what’s normal for women,” added Dr. Cook. “If something changes, they’re well aware of what was normal and what was different.”
So what’s next for the Springfield center? “Tomo Mammography is going to replace all mammography,” added Dr. Gregston. “It takes section-by-section imagery of the breast, and will enable us to not only find more cancers, but also reduce the number of false positives.”
The center celebrated its 20th anniversary with an open house on Wednesday, April 30. Mercy Hospital Springfield’s senior vice president and COO, Jay Guffey, honored the original breast center staff and physicians for their pioneering work.
To learn more about Mercy Breast Center, visit http://bit.ly/MercyBreastCtr or call (417) 820-2500.