Sharon Snavely calls herself “the luckiest girl in the world.”
The 68-year-old Missoula woman recently underwent successful breast cancer treatment at the Montana Cancer Center at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, where a team of surgeons, radiation oncologists, physicists, dosimetrists (radiation specialists) and technicians used a remarkable new device called the SAVI applicator.
The device, which looks a heck of a lot like a space-age egg beater, cuts the radiation treatment time down from nearly seven weeks to five days and is extremely effective.
The SAVI applicator delivers a form of radiation therapy known as breast brachytherapy, which targets the tumor site from inside the breast. The multi-catheter device treats the tissue surrounding the lumpectomy cavity from the inside out. The device is inserted into the breast through a small incision, and then the physician expands the bundle of catheters so the radiation dose will conform to the size and shape of the area to be treated. A chunk of a radioactive isotope of iridium about the size of a grain of rice is sent through the catheters by a computer.
Breast brachytherapy typically involves two treatments a day for only five days. Although it is a high radiation dose, the radiation is targeted at specific parts of the body so normal tissue doesn’t die, only cancer cells.
For the last 30 to 40 years, the traditional procedure for treating small breast cancer tumors is a six-and-a-half week radiation treatment from outside the breast, five days a week. That treatment is the medical standard and is highly effective, but it is much less precise, and often the lungs, heart, ribs, skin and other organs are at risk of getting hit by radiation.
“We know the traditional treatment works,” said Dr. Jeffrey Stephenson, a radiation oncologist at St. Patrick who was recruited because of his SAVI expertise. “But women are active. Sharon had all this stuff to deal with, and she could have all her treatments done in time for her trip. It’s convenience. Women are working, they live far away, like in Hamilton or Polson. So, six-and-a-half weeks of driving back and forth is a big problem.”
Instead, Snavely was able to undergo morning and afternoon treatments for five days, each just a few minutes long, and she was able to go home between treatments.
Stephenson has worked with fellow radiation oncologists Dr. Margaret Menendez and Dr. Katherine Markette to implement use of the device in Missoula. They’ve treated 15 patients with the SAVI applicator at St. Pat’s since Stephenson came on board a year ago, and the Montana Cancer Center treated 130 breast cancer patients last year.
The SAVI applicator doesn’t work for tumors that have spread to lymph nodes, but with advances in self-exams, regular checkups and other early detection methods, many women can find themselves coming into a hospital before that happens. Snavely found a lump on her breast on a Tuesday afternoon, and it turned out to be Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. She had a surgery to remove the tumor, not the whole breast, and then five days later, she started the five-day SAVI treatment to make sure every last bit of the cancer was destroyed.
“On Aug. 26, I had my last radiation treatment and I got on a flight to Stockholm, Sweden to see our new grandbaby on Aug. 30, so it was lightning speed,” Snavely explained. She said she suffered no side effects such as loss of hair or appetite.
The Montana Cancer Center received the SAVI Center of Excellence Award on Sept. 4, as the first cancer facility in Missoula to use the device.
Stephenson said the applicator also allows physicians to sculpt radiation treatments specifically to each patient’s anatomy, which increases the number of women who are eligible for treatment.
The SAVI (strut adjusted volume implant) technology was developed by Cianna Medical Inc., a women’s health company dedicated to the early treatment of breast cancer.
Snavely, who has no family history of cancer, said her doctors told her that her hormone replacement treatments were probably the culprit for the cancer.
“If you’re on hormone replacement, don’t stay on it long, because I was on it for 23 years,” she said. “It feeds the cancer the estrogen. You always think that ‘I’m going to be OK, and it won’t happen to me.’ But I had a 40 percent higher chance of getting cancer because of the hormone replacement.”
Snavely said she was extremely impressed by the professionalism and the efficiency in which her cancer was treated. Stephenson said Stage 1 breast cancer has a 90 percent cure rate if it is caught early, and that breast cancer deaths have dropped every year for the last 20 years because of mammograms.
All Snavely can do now is encourage other women to perform self exams and get a mammogram every 12 months.
“I’m proud to be 68 and have six grandchildren, and I want to live a long time,” she said. “I can’t tell people enough, get checked every 12 months.”