When Anita Laughlin's doctor spotted a very small beginning of cancer in her left breast, she insisted that Laughlin go to see a particular physician at Stanford. That physician, she said, was using a ground-breaking procedure to treat Laughlin's type of cancer.
"And it worked out very, very well," Laughlin said, smiling, at home in her kitchen and steps from a luxuriantly blooming garden that’s one of the great joys of her life.
Frederick Dirbas, MD, physician leader of the breast disease management group at the new Stanford Women's Cancer Center, was one of the first—and still one of just a few—physicians in the U.S. to take aim at breast cancer with technique designed to deliver cancer-killing radiation as part of the tumor removal surgery.
The procedure, called intraoperative radiation, or IORT, is appropriate only for very early stage tumors. Even though it delivers 10 times the daily dose in a conventional six-week course of post-lumpectomy radiation, patients suffer far fewer side effects and disruption of their lives. Since 2002, patients with breast cancer at Stanford have been among just a small number to receive the innovative IORT: a single dose of radiation is delivered directly to the surgical
"They have the opportunity to hone in on the problem right there and then, and they sew you up. You literally get up and go home and resume your lifestyle," Laughlin said. She was in and out of the hospital very quickly. "The care I got during all of this and afterwards has been absolutely fantastic," she said. "There's a sense of partnership, and we're not going to stop caring about you even though you're not there getting operated on right now."
Although IORT was unusual, Laughlin's confidence in Dirbas and the technique was immediate. "I got the sense he's a person who's very pro-woman and can empathize with what's going on," she said. "I really give him credit for doing something for women that's so positive. He was also willing to answer questions, give us his email and be available for anything that came up."
Dirbas is also co-editor of a newly published book on interdisciplinary breast cancer care. His special focus is new methods, in both diagnosis and treatment, to reduce the physical discomfort and damage patients must sometimes endure in treatment without jeopardizing treatment results.
While breast IORT is one of many advances offered to breast cancer patients at Stanford, "the greatest strength of Stanford's Breast Cancer program," Dirbas said, "is the breadth and depth of expertise, overall quality, commitment to patients and teamwork of our group, whether in the clinic or affiliated research laboratories. It is a special group of people."
Five years after her diagnosis, Laughlin is living her life with an attitude spurred by her cancer diagnosis. "In a way," she said, "cancer is like taking the lid off the box, to do all of the things you really want to do with your life but have put on hold."