It was just another routine appointment with her gynecologist, until the doctor asked Sharon Flannery how long she’d had the lump in her breast.
The West Hartford resident had been good about keeping up with her regular exams and yearly mammograms, so she was surprised. Flannery had no idea it was there.
Not long after, a biopsy confirmed that the lump was invasive ductal breast cancer.
[Lead Photo: Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant]
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” she said. “I’m healthy, nothing showed up on former mammograms, I had no family history of breast cancer, it was totally unexpected.”
Flannery is fortunate, her cancer was detected early and, nearly two years later, she’s on the other side of chemotherapy and radiation, and it’s a good place to be.
“So many women have diagnoses much worse than mine, I’m very lucky.”
It’s not all about luck, however. Flannery also credits the treatment she received from her team of doctors at the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.
“From beginning to end, they were incredible,” she said.
The Comprehensive Women’s Health Center is one of a growing number of hospitals and clinics that are offering a myriad of women’s services, physicians and care all under one roof instead of the more traditional, partitioned care.
Encompassed at the Center are women’s heart programs, obstetrics and gynecology and a new breast health center, which aims to do more than provide testing and treatment.
“Every woman who comes to the health center will arrive, have a mammogram, and within 20 minutes or less are told the results, which are generally normal and they go home,” said Dr. Niamey Wilson, a specialist in breast surgery, general surgery and co-director of the Hoffman Breast Health Center at the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center.
Dr. Christine Rizk, left, director of the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, and Dr. Niamey Wilson, co-director of the center’s Hoffman Breast Health Center discuss breast health. [Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant]
“If any findings on the mammogram warrant additional imaging or a potential biopsy, they are told the same day and generally additional imaging is done that day.”
That is significant for women, many of whom are riddled with anxiety as they wait days, sometimes weeks, for results and follow-up appointments.
“They are on pins and needles, waiting to get a letter in the mail,” said Wilson.
If a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, the next phase begins almost immediately according to Dr. Kimberly Caprio, breast surgery specialist and co-director of the Hoffman Breast Health Center.
“We can anticipate their needs and coordinate with scheduling right off the bat,” she said.
Depending on the circumstances, that scheduling can include meeting with on-site oncologists, breast and plastic surgeons, a genetic counselor and other support personnel. And treatment is initiated within a matter of days.
But according to Dr. Christine Rizk, director of the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center and breast surgeon, that’s only part of what makes them different.
“It’s also our integrated medical services,” she said. “It’s understanding that it’s a journey and that it’s more than just the physical realm of women and their breasts; it’s mind, body and soul.”
Some of those services include things like massage therapy, holistic nutrition, acupuncture, therapeutic yoga and reiki.
“These services are not instead of,” she clarified, “but in addition to. It’s tremendously important for the humanizing component that’s critical to women’s and families healing.”
More Facilities Taking This Approach
Humanizing the experience, whether it’s a breast screen or ongoing treatment, is exactly what the Center is trying to do; beyond offering extended services, the overall environment is designed to put patients at ease.
Offering a spa-like atmosphere is a departure from the typical antiseptic setting — upgrading everything from valet parking to cozy bathrobes.
St. Francis isn’t alone with its approach. Other hospitals and clinics are also starting to offer same-day service, as well as more individualized care.
UConn Health recently opened a new women’s center in its Outpatient Pavilion in Farmington. Dr. Alex Merkulov, radiologist, associate professor of radiology and section head for women’s imaging for the University of Connecticut, said they offer women the option to receive same-day imaging results, along with other testing needs in a relaxed, setting.
“It’s looked at right then and there, typically in 15 minutes,” he said. “We literally give you an answer right then and there.”
Patients can also view their mammograms and can ask any questions or voice concerns they may have about it.
“They can literally walk up and look at the mammogram,” said Merkulov.
Much like St. Francis, if something is detected, they can choose to stay for further testing, or schedule it at a more convenient time.
“Every patient that leaves here gets a card with my telephone number on it,” Merkulov said. “If you forgot to ask something, have a question, are nervous, didn’t hear me right, you can call me, it goes to my cell phone and we can have a conversation and address your concerns.”
For many women that kind of personalized care, combined with less waiting time, goes a long way in alleviating some of the anxiety that accompanies the process, regardless of whether it’s a routine breast screen or something more complex.
It’s especially meaningful to patients like Flannery, who continues going to St. Francis every six months for follow-up mammograms and MRIs.
“I like going there and feeling like I’m an individual person and not just a patient,” she said.
And when she goes she doesn’t have to wait long for the results.
“It’s so easy,” she said, “I go from mammogram to interpretation. It’s incredibly reassuring to have that information immediately.”