Janet Pennington readily admits that getting routine mammograms was never really on her radar. She made it to her 60s before her physician’s pleading finally wore her down.
“I thought, she keeps bringing it up so I may as well go and get it done,” Pennington said. “And then they saw a small shadow and told me to get re-checked in six months.”
On her follow-up visit in October 2020, the shadow was more defined and a biopsy was ordered. Pennington wasn’t ready for the results.
“I had in my head there’s was nothing to it. I was positive it was nothing. But the doctor told me it was breast cancer. I was nowhere near ready to hear any such thing. It was devastating, but the good news is it was caught early just as it was forming,” she said.
Pennington reached out to a friend who suggested she consult with Dr. Paul Dale, a surgical oncologist and Atrium Health Navicent Peyton Anderson Cancer Center’s director.
Dr. Dale suggested a lumpectomy and Intraoperative Radiation Therapy (IORT), a radiation treatment that's done during surgery. IORT directs radiation to the target area while affecting the surrounding tissue as little as possible. It delivers higher doses of radiation than standard radiation therapy and has decreased radiation therapy time from 21 days to 8 minutes for certain breast cancer patients.
“Dr. Dale told me I was the perfect candidate for IORT, and after he explained it, of course I said yes. He said they do the radiation while you’re on the table, and you’re never aware of anything. I was thrilled that they could do that, and I didn’t even know that was an option,” she said.
Pennington went straight home to Warner Robins to recover after her surgery, which was on Jan. 2, 2021. After two weeks of recuperation at home, she was able to return to work.
“I was able to get back to my life very quickly without going to radiation every day, I had no side effects and I was very pleased that I could get back to normal,” she said.
IORT is something Dale said he wishes more women knew about. With October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Dale and the other doctors at Atrium Health Navicent Peyton Anderson Cancer Center are raising awareness about this cutting-edge treatment. Women over 65 with small tumors and who are lymph node negative can qualify for IORT, only available locally at Atrium Health Navicent.
“We are using IORT to treat early-stage breast cancer for women over 65, therefore allowing them to omit the post-op radiation, which lasts 21 days. So, you get 8 minutes of exposure to the IORT machine, which takes the place of 21 days of driving to radiation appointments. That’s extremely important for ladies who may live further away, or who may have difficulty arranging for transportation,” Dale said. “We’re seeing outstanding results. The patients love it because it’s so easy.”
Accounting for about 30 percent of all new female cancers each year, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that in 2023 about 297,790 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women, leading to about 43,700 deaths.
Overall, the average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13 percent. This means there is a 1 in 8 chance she will develop breast cancer.
In addition to offering IORT therapy, Atrium Health Navicent is participating in a clinical trial that explores the use of IORT and its impact on breast cancer treatment. While the technology itself is not new, the size of the machine has decreased in the last decade, allowing it to be placed in smaller operating rooms. The next closest places to receive IORT are in Atlanta and Gainesville, Florida.
“Women come in to have their tumor removed and get 8 minutes of IORT while they are on the table. They wake up and they are done. It’s absolutely awesome,” Dale said. “We’re seeing these patients on a clinical trial, so we’re following them to see how they do.”
In particular, the clinical trial is studying cosmetic results after IORT as compared with whole-breast radiation.
“What we’re seeing is the cosmetic results after IORT are better than whole-breast radiation,” Dale said.
It’s been nearly two years since Pennington’s surgery.
“There’s no sign of cancer. I take a pill to keep it from coming back, which I’ll be on for five years,” she said. “But I’m back on an annual mammogram schedule, and I tell you, I will never miss another one!”
Atrium Health Navicent Breast Care Center, a facility of Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center, has been accredited by The National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), a quality program of the American College of Surgeons (ACS).
The Breast Care Center is also a National Consortium of Breast Centers’ “Certified Quality Breast Center of Excellence” and has been designated as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology’s Commission on Quality and Safety and the Commission on Breast Imaging.
Atrium Health Navicent Peyton Anderson Cancer Center provides the latest technology for the early detection of breast cancer, including state-of-the-art 3D mammography and new SCOUT technology, as well as 3D biopsies, same-day biopsies, breast ultrasounds, 3D mammography, wireless breast localization biopsies, molecular breast imaging and breast MRI. High-risk hereditary screenings are also available.
The caring and experienced team of specialists at the Cancer Center offer services ranging from prevention and diagnosis to treatment and survivorship support.
Pennington said she’s very thankful for the kind and caring staff at Atrium Health Navicent, who saw her from diagnosis all the way through to survivorship.
“I had to have so many tests done before my lumpectomy, and all the nurses and staff were so nice,” she said. “They were all very gentle, they were caring and they made me feel special, which I needed because I was terrified. Everyone was very reassuring, and catching my cancer early really was the answer.”
If you or a loved one has concerns about cancer risk factors, available screenings or cancer care, contact Atrium Health Navicent Peyton Anderson Cancer Center at 478-633-3000. To find a doctor, visit www.NavicentHealth.org and click “Find A Doctor.”