Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center

Handled With Care

The breast cancer journey is a delicate one. The breast team at UConn Health strives to guide each patient through every step of their individual path with an unmatched level of attention and comfort.

 

By Kim Krieger
Photos by Peter Morenus

UConn medical oncologist Dr. Susan Tannenbaum initiated the multidisciplinary focus of the breast program, connecting patient care to research and bringing accreditation through the American College of Surgeons, before handing the reins to surgeon Dr. Christina Stevenson.

UConn medical oncologist Dr. Susan Tannenbaum initiated the multidisciplinary focus of the breast program, connecting patient care to research and bringing accreditation through the American College of Surgeons, before handing the reins to surgeon Dr. Christina Stevenson.


Some people need no urging to get medical screenings. These are the people who see their dentist twice a year like clockwork, who make that annual preventive care appointment, and who don’t put off a colonoscopy.

But most people are not like that. Even a mammogram can be a tough sell. Getting your breasts squeezed between two cold plates and X-rayed while wearing an ill-fitting gown is nobody’s idea of a good time. And when a patient has already found a suspicious lump, there’s an extra layer of stress.

The radiologists and staff at UConn Health’s Beekley Imaging Center, part of the Women’s Center, do their best to dispel that stress. Good service and a relaxing atmosphere go a long way toward evoking a spa-like ambience. There’s comfortable seating, private changing rooms, warmed gowns that fit, appointments that start on time — and cookies.

The patients appreciate it.

“I’m always in and out,” one woman says to another as they ride the elevator up to the imaging center. “I stay for the cookies and juice,” says the other. They both laugh. The first woman proclaims, “It’s really nice up there!”

Indeed it is. And if a woman cares to linger over her cookies and juice, she can get her results on the spot.

“One woman, here in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, always reports the same symptoms. Lumps, terrible breast pain. She wants our attention. She is worried about breast cancer,” says Dr. Alex Merkulov, head of women’s imaging and a radiologist in the Imaging Center. “Our job is to remind her of the prior years and assure her that everything is OK this time, too. We treat people the way we would want to be treated.”

Merkulov is intensely attentive when you talk to him, and although his phone dings constantly, he gives you the feeling that all his focus is on you. However much time you need. He says working with each patient “is a personal relationship.” And he means it.

All a woman needs to start this relationship is an order for a mammogram from her primary care doctor. She makes an appointment and fills out a short questionnaire when she arrives. Does she have a lump? Pain? Have any family members had breast cancer? Depending on her answers to the questionnaire and the results of her mammogram, the radiologists may recommend she come in for more frequent screenings or have a consultation with one of the genetic counselors.

After her low-dose mammogram, the woman dresses, gets her cookies and juice, and hears her results within 15 minutes. If she’s in a hurry, she can leave immediately and get a phone call within two days letting her know if she needs any follow-up tests.

Most of the time, those results are A-OK. The radiologist gives the all-clear and says, “See you in two years.”

Dr. Alex Merkulov

“We treat people the way we want to be treated,” says Dr. Alex Merkulov, head of women's imaging and a radiologist in the Beekley Imaging Center. The large screens in the Center's imaging suite allow radiologists to show patients exactly what they're seeing after a mammogram and explain why they are or are not concerned.

Intimate, Holistic Care

Only about 10% of women have something in the mammogram that might indicate a problem. When that happens, the radiologist recommends a follow-up ultrasound or a special mammogram to detect the calcium deposits that can signal early breast cancer.

“I’m a frequent flyer” at the Beekley Imaging Center, says a patient named Patricia. Because she’s at high risk for breast cancer, she’s had tests often over the last 10 years. At some places she’s had mammograms, “you go in a basement, you don’t talk to anyone, you get a letter a week later,” she says. But UConn Health is completely different.

When she first started going, they modeled her risk. Patricia’s was off the charts, so they had her meet with a medical oncologist at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center who specializes in breast cancer to discuss preventive options. After examining Patricia’s history in detail, the oncologist, Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, advised her that actually, she didn’t need to proceed with preventive medical oncology. On other visits, the radiologist has invited her into his office to view the mammograms displayed on big screens so he can show her exactly what he sees and explain why he is or isn’t concerned.

“They give you a lot of information in a caring way,” Patricia says. “I have too much going on to have my primary care doctor and OB/GYN booking appointments randomly — I need a team treating me holistically. This feels like intimate care from really great doctors.”

That focus on intimate, holistic care is evident even when a woman has a benign breast condition. Women with breast pain, breast infections, fibroadenomas, and other lumps that aren’t cancer see Dr. Dana Scott, an OB/GYN who specializes in benign breast conditions. The benign breast disease program she leads is unique in the area.

“I try to really listen to my patients and spend the appropriate amount of time with them to hear all their concerns,” Scott says. Sometimes the women need treatment, sometimes even surgery. But just as often, it’s the care and attention they get that is the most valuable. For “a lot of patients who are really worried they have breast cancer and they don’t, having someone who can listen to them, examine them, and provide follow-up is really important,” Scott says.

Not All Women Are the Same

But what if a woman’s breast condition isn’t benign? If the follow-up scans reveal something that looks suspicious, the radiologists discuss the findings with the woman and advise her to come in for a biopsy, scheduled at her convenience for some time in the next day or two.

The tissue from the biopsy is evaluated by Dr. Poornima Hegde, a UConn Health pathologist who specializes in breast disease. A cancer diagnosis is only as precise at the pathologist who evaluates the suspicious cells, and Hegde is an expert. She looks at breast tissue all day, every day, and can make the call between cells that are just a little weird versus cells that mean malignancy.

“We try to reduce the ambiguity: either you’re OK, or you’re not,” says Merkulov, the radiologist. “Poornima is a godsend.”

If Hegde and the radiologists agree the woman has a cancerous mass, they spring into action. They contact the breast cancer nurse navigator and, often, the team’s social worker and bring them in to discuss the results of the biopsy with the patient. The nurse navigator will call the patient and answer any preliminary questions she has. The navigator also tries to identify any hurdles or barriers the woman might have to overcome to get treatment.

“You need to understand where people are coming from: people may have the exact same diagnosis but very different resources,” says Wendy Thibodeau, RN, one of the nurse navigators who works with breast cancer patients. Thibodeau speaks plainly, and intuitively grasps what you’re really asking with a question. Her role as a navigator is to coordinate care for the patient, offer her emotional support, evaluate any barriers to treatment, and help her get to the next step. She gives every patient her cell phone number and tells them they can call her anytime. Often, they call her to ask her to remind them what the doctor said, what they need to do. But other times, she must talk them down.

“Sometimes we have a patient whose first instinct is ‘Cut it off! Cut it out of me!’” Thibodeau says. “I have to call her and explain you can’t just cut; you need to do lots of tests to understand what we need to do to treat this.” Sometimes a woman will need chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor. The nurse navigator can fit the woman for a cold cap to preserve her hair and meet her on the first day of chemotherapy for support. Or she might need other tests or treatments, and the nurse navigator can explain those and help her through them. Not all breast cancers are the same.

And not all women are the same, nor do they have the same needs. Both these points were highlighted during a tumor board meeting this summer.

The tumor boards are weekly meetings between the medical oncologist, the surgeons, the radiologists, pathologist, the nurses, and the social worker. Radiation oncologists, plastic surgeons, genetic counselors, and any others involved in the patients’ care also join. They discuss their cases that week. Typically, the radiologist will start off, to show the extent of the cancer in the breast and whether they believe it has spread. The pathologist will share and confirm with the team what she’s found.

The medical oncologist will discuss the best approach, the type of treatment this cancer responds to best, whether the patient will need chemotherapy. The surgeons consider the type of excisions they can offer the patient. The discussion about treatment is often collaborative, with the surgeons, radiologists, medical oncologist, and geneticists all weighing in. They also discuss cases post-surgery; did they find what they thought they would? Should treatment change
in any way?

Dr. Christina Stevenson

Dr. Christina Stevenson, surgical oncologist and breast program head, in the operating room.

The Road to the 'All-Clear' — and Beyond

And then there was a patient we’ll call Deborah. She was a 43-year-old single mother. She needed to come in for surgery, and soon. But she had no one to take care of her children for the 24 hours or so she would need for surgery and recovery. Everyone was worried about her.

Dr. Christina Stevenson, the surgical oncologist and head of the breast program at UConn Health, was the first person to bring up Deborah’s childcare predicament. She’d seen her the day before.

Typically, when Stevenson meets with a patient who needs surgery, they discuss surgical options: just the lump, or the whole breast? Perhaps the woman wants a reduction done at the same time, or implants put in for reconstruction, or her own tissue used instead of implants. Stevenson often consults with a plastic surgeon, and she does what is called oncoplastic surgery.

“I always try to preserve the breast in a lumpectomy to have the same size and shape we started with,” she says. “People worry they’ll have a divot. But we can move tissue around to help with the appearance.” She also has a few technological tricks, like the Biozorb sitting on her desk. It looks like an inch-long spring made of clear plastic. It’s actually resorbable suture material, studded with little metal clips. The sutures give a scaffold for the tissue to regrow upon, while the metal clips show up on a CAT scan or mammogram and help to focus radiation treatments, as well as follow-up in the future.

Stevenson is very calm describing all this; talking to her about breast surgery is almost soothing. Above her desk is an excerpt of a Christian prayer often attributed to Mother Teresa: “Dear Lord, Give skill to my hand, clear vision to my mind, kindness and meekness to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose and strength to lift up a part of the burden of my suffering fellow man.”

Stevenson brought up Deborah’s case at the tumor board. The social worker and nurse and community navigators stepped in. Although it’s more common for the community navigators to set up rides to appointments, provide gas cards, or fit patients for a nice wig, their goal is to make it possible for women to get treatment. The social worker focuses on psychosocial needs, and here was a woman with very limited social support. The social worker spoke with Deborah often, exploring who could care for her children within her family and community. Eventually Deborah worked past her anxiety and began to make concrete decisions. After much discussion, she found it in herself to speak with her sister and ask for assistance in caring for her kids while she was in recovery. Her friend drove her to and from surgery. Thanks to everyone stepping up, Deborah was able to successfully complete the initial phase of her treatment.

After surgery, Stevenson follows up with the patient at 1.5 weeks, then three months, then every three to six months for two years, often alternating visits with the medical oncologist. Then, if all is well, the patient comes back for yearly mammograms for life. She comes in for her scans and her cookies and juice and, hopefully, gets the all-clear. And if not, then Stevenson and the rest of the team at UConn Health’s breast program will help her take care of it.

“Because breast cancer is fairly easy to treat, typically. Especially when we catch it early,” Stevenson says. “And when we do regular mammograms, we catch it early.”

Nurse navigators and nurses like Minal Dave, RN, often offer patients emotional support.

Nurse navigators and nurses like Minal Dave, RN, often offer patients emotional support.

Taking Control

By Delker Vardilos

Photos by Tina Encarnacion

UConn Health is the first hospital in New England to use a new robotic technology to diagnose lung cancer sooner, getting patients the treatment they need and saving lives.

Product images courtesy of Auris Health

Lung cancer kills about 150,000 Americans each year. But when it is detected early, survival rates improve exponentially. UConn Health is the first hospital in New England to use a new robotic technology to diagnose cancer sooner, getting patients the treatment they need and saving lives.


Supporters of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg breathed a collective sigh of relief this winter after two cancerous nodules were successfully removed from her left lung through a lobectomy. Ginsburg’s cancer was found during the routine testing done after the fit 85-year-old fractured several ribs in a fall, and for a moment the diagnosis cracked the seemingly invincible façade of the octogenarian icon.

Although Ginsburg’s cancer was found by chance, her story is a great example of how early detection and swift action can improve the likelihood of survival for lung cancer, the deadliest cancer for both men and women in the U.S. by a wide margin. More people die of lung cancer each year than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined, and more than half of people with lung cancer die within a year of being diagnosed, according to the American Lung Association.

“The accuracy of this is going to pan out to be second to none. I think this is the tip of the iceberg in diagnosis.”

But when the cancer is detected early, before it spreads beyond the lungs, the five-year survival rate jumps from 5 percent to 56 percent. The problem is, just 16 percent of lung cancer diagnoses come at an early stage, American Lung Association statistics show. Since lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women, proper screening for those at risk could save tens of thousands of lives.

A revolutionary precision technology now at UConn Health is making early diagnosis easier than ever.

UConn Health is the first hospital in New England and among the first in the nation to offer robotic bronchoscopy on the Monarch platform from Auris Health, allowing physicians to quickly diagnose lesions detected through low-dose CT scans, including those that are small or in hard-to-reach parts of the lung.

“Before this technology, the targets would’ve had to be bigger. I wouldn’t be able to make certain angles without the robotic arm to navigate,” says Dr. Omar Ibrahim, UConn Health director of thoracic oncology and interventional pulmonology. “I have a higher degree of confidence and accuracy with this than with prior equipment.

“The ability to diagnose the cancers at an earlier stage will allow us to surgically manage the disease,” he says. “This is the only chance for a cure.”

probe snaking through lung

The Monarch platform’s advanced, precision endoscope allows physicians to access hard-to-reach parts of the lungs and their bronchi and to diagnose lesions earlier than ever before.

With its user-friendly, video-game-style controller, the Monarch platform allows the physician to move the endoscope up and down, left and right, forward and backward through a lung and its bronchi. Buttons on the controller make the scope of view bigger or smaller, while others control suction or irrigation. Procedures are done in the operating room under general anesthesia. Within about an hour, the doctor will biopsy the suspicious nodule and a lymph node for analysis by a pathologist. The patient can go home the same day.

If cancer is confirmed in the lung, it will then be staged to see how far it has advanced. A team of cancer specialists then develop an individualized treatment plan that is ideal for the patient and their specific type and stage of cancer. A patient’s treatment plan might include surgery to remove a small portion of the lung or the entire lung, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, medications,
and immunotherapy.

Not only does earlier diagnosis improve patients’ chances for survival, but it also helps reduce unnecessary stress, says Wendy Thibodeau, the lung cancer nurse navigator at UConn Health’s Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“We have had patients where initial and subsequent biopsies are inconclusive. A decision then has to be made: remove the nodule surgically, or watch it for growth,” Thibodeau says.

“This can be stressful on a patient. They either have to go through a significant procedure they may not have needed or wait to see if the nodule gets worse. This technology will give us better accuracy for appropriate tissue sampling, making the decision more clear.”

A revolutionary precision technology is making early diagnosis easier than ever.

Routine screenings of high-risk patients — those with histories of smoking, especially — using low-dose CT scans and minimally invasive techniques help detect lesions and diagnose more people all the time.
The Monarch platform is the next step in improving outcomes for lung cancer patients, and Ibrahim sees even more groundbreaking advances on the horizon.

“Within the next year or two, this technology should allow us to treat lesions with radiofrequency ablation [a minimally invasive procedure that uses heat to destroy cancer cells],” Ibrahim says. “Diagnosis and treatment could be done all at the same time.”

In his time at UConn Health, Ibrahim has worked to improve the experience of UConn Health’s lung cancer patients, particularly through a multidisciplinary team that allows patients to come to one clinic to see a variety of doctors.

“Since we’ve enhanced and personalized the way we care for lung cancer, the number of lung cancer patients at UConn Health has quickly increased,” says Ibrahim. “Time to diagnosis and treatment is tremendously shorter, and patients are happier with the quality of their care.”

He believes the robotic bronchoscopy technology will allow the team to deliver even better results.

“The accuracy of this is going to pan out to be second to none,” says Ibrahim. “I think this is the tip of the iceberg in diagnosis, and the therapeutic aspect of it, which will evolve over time, is really exciting. Being at the forefront of that is amazing.”

Dr. Omar Ibrahim, UConn Health director of thoracic oncology and interventional pulmonology, demonstrates the Monarch technology.

Dr. Omar Ibrahim, UConn Health director of thoracic oncology and interventional pulmonology, demonstrates the Monarch technology.

A Team Approach Improves Lung Cancer Care

illustration; team of people overlook blue lineart in the shape of a human lung


As director of thoracic oncology and interventional pulmonology at UConn Health, Dr. Omar Ibrahim has been working hard to personalize and improve the experience of lung cancer patients.

“As a result of enhancing individualized care, the number of lung cancer patients UConn Health cares for has been rapidly increasing,” says Ibrahim. “We have immensely improved a patient’s time to diagnosis and treatment, as well as the overall quality of care they receive. Plus, our program’s advanced diagnostic imaging and rapid-sequence genetic testing has allowed us to get patients proper therapy in the most effective way possible.”

According to Ibrahim, UConn Health is one of a few institutions in the Northeast to consolidate how they care for lung cancer patients.

“Rather than having patients visit multiple physicians in different locations on our campus, we focus all our care for lung cancer patients in one multidisciplinary clinic,” says Ibrahim, who led the specialized clinic’s development. “This allows for ease of care and greater patient satisfaction and increases the patient’s knowledge.”

We have immensely improved a patient’s time to diagnosis and treatment, as well as the overall quality of care they receive.

The biggest risk factor for lung cancer, which kills more Americans than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined, is smoking. Ibrahim passionately urges current and former heavy smokers to get screened for the disease with a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan at UConn Health’s Lung Cancer Screening Program at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Our goal is to find lung cancer at its earliest stage so we can have options to treat it and cure it,” Ibrahim says.

If a low-dose CT scan catches a suspicious lung nodule or growth, Ibrahim leverages minimally invasive techniques to rule out lung cancer, or diagnose and identify what stage the disease is at. He uses video-guided 3-D navigational bronchoscopy technology and ultrasound in the exam room to closely examine a patient’s lung tissue using a thin, flexible tube via the nose or mouth. The technology also allows for small lung tissue biopsy samples to be taken.

But Ibrahim is not only proud of improving his patient’s experience and outcomes.

“What I am truly proud of is the team effort of everyone involved with a lung cancer patient’s care, from the staffer greeting them at the door to the nurse infusing their chemotherapy. They all are doing an immense job.”

Follow-Up – Summer 2018

Research doesn’t stop when we report it. Here are updates on past UConn Health Journal stories:


Glycogen Storage Disease

The world’s first gene therapy clinical trial for Glycogen Storage Disease (GSD) Type Ia is expected to start this year, hosted by the GSD Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and UConn Health, under the direction of Dr. David Weinstein. The FDA–approved trials will be done in conjunction with biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx.

Spring 2017, “Free to Be Imperfect”


Advancing Surgical Care for Older Adults

UConn John Dempsey Hospital will be one of seven U.S. hospitals to pilot-test newly developed guidelines for improving the quality of surgical care for older adults for the American College of Surgeons’ Coalition for Quality in Geriatric Surgery (CQGS), the American Geriatric Society, and the John A. Hartford Foundation.

Fall 2017, “Pinpointing Risk Factors to Prevent Postoperative Delirium”


Detecting Hearing Loss

Findings presented at the 53rd American Neurotology Society annual spring meeting reveal the first potential biomarker for noise-induced hearing loss. A collaborative study by UConn Health and Sensorion showed changing levels of prestin, an outer hair cell protein, in the blood correlated with the severity of hearing loss.

Fall 2016, “Detecting Hearing Loss, Vertigo Via Blood Tests”


Breast Health

UConn Health assistant professor and breast surgeon Dr. Christina Stevenson has begun providing breast health education in hair salons, funded by the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative. The program aims to reach women in Hartford County who may be at risk for late- stage diagnosis of breast cancer due to health care access barriers.

Fall 2016, “On the Ground for Breast Cancer Awareness”


Skin Cancer Screening

Up to 60 percent of UConn Health patients with a suspicious skin lesion or mole can now avoid invasive biopsies thanks to confocal microscopy technology, according to dermatologist Dr. Jane Grant-Kels. The technology uses a painless laser light to see skin cells on a cellular level and help doctors identify skin cancers, including melanoma.

Summer 2016, “Finding Skin Cancer in a Flash”


Cooling Cap Therapy

Marisa Dolce, a Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center breast cancer patient, reported keeping 70 percent of her hair as the first UConn Health patient to use optional scalp-cooling technology while undergoing chemotherapy. UConn Health is the only Connecticut institution outside Fairfield County to offer the FDA-approved DigniCap.

Fall 2017, “Cooling Off Chemotherapy’s Side Effects”

New Gynecologic Oncologist Stresses Early Detection, Gentle Care

Dr. Bradford P. Whitcomb


Dr. Bradford Whitcomb is UConn Health’s newest gynecologic oncologist. He specializes in the holistic care of women with endometrial, cervical, or ovarian cancer or precancerous conditions.

With the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology chair Dr. Molly Brewer, Whitcomb provides full-service gynecologic oncology services including advanced imaging, biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, and minimally invasive or open surgery at the state-of-the-art Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health’s Outpatient Pavilion and at UConn John Dempsey Hospital.

Each patient also has access to a vast group of UConn Health’s multi-specialists, cutting-edge clinical research trials, and support services.

“It is so important to me to treat each of my patients like my own family member with the most personalized, comprehensive patient care experience, and the kindest and gentlest approach,” Whitcomb says. “It is so personally satisfying to me to have the ability each day to help women and their families through their cancer diagnosis and care.”

Whitcomb is a retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel who served in the Army Medical Department for more than 25 years. He also was deployed several times in Iraq and Afghanistan as an OB/GYN, surgical assistant, and combat research team member.

It is important to me to treat each of my patients like my own family member.

“The Army was a conduit for me to attend medical school and have the privilege to care for women my entire career,” says Whitcomb. “Women run our families. It’s critical for women to remain healthy and team with their doctors to ensure they are having their annual primary care and GYN screenings, which are the basis for preventing illness and catching a female cancer early.”

According to Whitcomb, most gynecological cancers have early warning signs that women need to stay ahead of with their doctors. These may include unusual bleeding, abdominal pain, bloating, and difficulty eating. Other concerns include increased risks of endometrial or uterine cancer as obesity rates among women rise, as well as making greater efforts to increase cancer screenings among underserved female populations.

But Whitcomb reports the biggest challenge in gynecologic oncology is still preventing and catching ovarian cancer, the most lethal cancer in women, early. He is currently working with Dr. Pramod Srivastava, director of the Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, to recruit newly diagnosed ovarian cancer patients to the world’s first clinical trial testing a unique genomics-driven immunotherapy vaccine aimed at preventing the disease’s recurrence.

“Bottom line, to beat female cancers we need open lines of communication with both referring primary care and OB/GYN physicians, and women need to feel comfortable reaching out directly for consultation,” Whitcomb says. “Don’t hesitate to make that call. The UConn Health family is here to help.”

Cooling Off Chemotherapy’s Side Effects

UConn Health’s Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only Connecticut institution outside Fairfield County to offer its breast cancer patients optional scalp-cooling therapy to reduce their chances of hair loss from chemotherapy treatments.

“Chemotherapy-induced temporary hair loss is one of the most common and stressful side effects breast cancer patients experience,” says Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, chief of the Division of Oncology and Hematology at UConn Health. “Anything we can do to limit a woman’s distress while she undergoes breast cancer care is essential for the patient’s overall holistic health.”

Research studies have shown that the FDA-cleared DigniCap, made by Dignitana Inc., is nearly 70 percent effective in reducing hair loss by at least half in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

While a patient undergoes intravenous chemotherapy treatments, the computerized cooling cap system circulates cooled liquid through a tight-fitting silicone cap. The cooling therapy works to limit chemotherapy’s side effects by constricting the scalp’s blood vessels, which limits the drug’s reach to the hair follicles and also slows the rate of hair cell division.

The technology’s arrival was spearheaded by donations from UConn Health professors Dr. William B. White and Nancy M. Petry, Ph.D., of the Pat & Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center, among others, and grant funding awarded to the UConn Foundation by the CT Breast Health Initiative.

On the Ground for Breast Cancer Awareness

breast cancer screening


Rashea Banks’ first patient at Community Health Services, a federally qualified community health center in Hartford’s North End, was a woman who lost several family members to breast cancer.

The woman, a Latina, said she wanted to get a mammogram, but did not know where to go.

“This woman’s experience, and others, are fueling my determination, ambition, and passion to reach as many women as possible and navigate them through early detection in order to prevent diagnosis at a later stage of breast cancer,” Banks said shortly after she started as UConn Health’s Community Breast Navigator in September 2015.

Visit UConn Health for information on UConn Health’s Breast Cancer Program.

Today, Banks has provided one-on-one counseling about breast cancer and the significance of early detection to more than 300 uninsured and underinsured women. She has referred 120 for breast screenings, resulting in 61 women receiving mammograms and/or ultrasounds at UConn Health.

Banks’ position with The Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center is grant-funded by Susan G. Komen Southern New England to help raise awareness of early detection among high-risk African American and Latino women. Breast cancer in this population often tends to be more aggressive, more difficult to treat, and more deadly. Fortunately, there have been no breast cancer diagnoses among the women she has helped thus far.

Anyone who visits Community Health Services in Hartford and, more recently, Community Health Center, Inc. in New Britain, has the option to receive free breast cancer counseling and free breast screenings through UConn Health’s Breast Navigation Program. Banks also scans the providers’ schedules every day, looking for patients who have not had a mammogram in the past year, and has the provider tell the patients she would like to talk to them at the end of their visit and enroll them in the program for a free mammogram. Other times, providers will identify patients who do not have health insurance and may have never had a mammogram, and will ask Banks to talk to them.

A lot of women are not aware that they may be at high risk for breast cancer. As a fellow African American woman who was raised in an inner-city community, I think it is so important to raise awareness of breast cancer directly in the community.

For those women choosing to receive breast screenings, Banks tracks their experience and, if any abnormalities are detected, connects them with UConn Health’s Breast Nurse Navigator Molly Tsipouras at The Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center in Farmington for further access to treatment.

“A lot of women are not aware that they may be at high risk for breast cancer,” says Banks, who is currently pursuing her Master of Public Health degree at UConn. “As a fellow African American woman who was raised in an inner-city community, I think it is so important to raise awareness of breast cancer directly in the community.”

Banks and UConn Health’s Breast Navigation Program continue to do community outreach in the Hartford area at health fairs, walks and races, and expos.

Along with breast surgeon Dr. Christina E. Stevenson, Banks plans to present on the success of UConn Health’s Community Breast Navigation program at The San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium this December to encourage other cancer centers nationally to do similar outreach in their communities to help further the fight against breast cancer.

Melanoma Patients Benefit from New Immunotherapy Drug

Microscopic view of a histology specimen of melanoma on human skin tissue

Microscopic view of a histology specimen of melanoma on human skin tissue.


Patients with advanced melanoma are benefiting from the same drug credited recently with the disappearance of the disease in former President Jimmy Carter.

Physicians with UConn Health’s Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center are successfully boosting the immune system of some of their advanced melanoma patients with a new, promising immunotherapy tool called Keytruda (pembrolizumab).

The drug was granted accelerated FDA approval in September 2014 for the treatment of melanoma patients who no longer respond to other drug treatments and are not candidates for surgery.

Melanoma is one of the deadliest types of skin cancer. If not detected early and removed from the skin, it can spread deep into the skin and to the body’s other organs, such as the lungs, liver, and brain. It is often fatal.

“Melanoma affects the young and the old, and its incidence is on the rise,” says Dr. Upendra P. Hegde, associate professor in the Department of Medicine, and chief medical oncologist for melanoma and cutaneous oncology and head and neck cancer/oral oncology at UConn Health. More than 75,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma annually, and nearly 10,000 Americans die from it each year.

Hegde says melanoma spreads quickly because tumors evade the immune system’s attack by expressing proteins called PD-L1 and PD-L2 (program death ligand 1 and 2), compromising the ability of a person’s T-cells to fight cancer.

However, Keytruda boosts a patient’s immune system, helping it fight back and preventing the cancer-fighting cells from becoming exhausted.

“Keytruda is the first PD-1 inhibitor drug that is allowing us to shrink the melanoma tumors in up to 35 percent of our UConn Health patients,” says Hegde.

Since not all advanced melanoma patients respond to current available drug therapies including Keytruda, UConn Health researchers are participating in two clinical trials that combine Keytruda with other therapy options. One, called INCYTE and led by principal investigator Dr. Jeffrey Wasser, is testing the efficacy of combining Keytruda with another immunotherapy drug known as an IDO1 inhibitor (INCB024360) to see if together they can enhance the immune system’s response to advanced melanoma and other solid-tumor cancers. A second trial is testing the possible benefits of Keytruda with standard chemotherapy for relapsed head and neck cancer.

UConn Health’s multidisciplinary melanoma team includes Dr. Jane Grant-Kels and Dr. Philip Kerr of dermatology, Hegde of medical oncology, and Dr. Bruce Brenner, a surgeon who specializes in melanoma, among others.

Close at Heart

By Kim Kreiger
Illustration by Yesenia Carrero

Radiation treatment for breast cancer can inadvertently graze the heart, leading to damage and disease years later. UConn doctors are working to change that.

closeatheart


Getting radiation treatment for breast cancer can make you feel vulnerable. Sitting in a machine with radiation pointed directly at your chest, you have to trust that the doctor knows what she’s doing, that the X-rays are aimed right, that the machine is properly calibrated … and then you just sit perfectly still.

But what if you could have some control over the process?

Dr. Robert Dowsett, chief of UConn’s Division of Radiation Oncology, and
colleagues in the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center are using a new technique to give breast cancer patients agency in their radiation treatments. And they’re taking better care of the patients’ hearts in the process.

A patient can intentionally increase the heart-chest wall distance by more than a centimeter by controlling her breathing using the Deep Inspiration Breath Hold.

Using the technique, called Deep Inspiration Breath Hold, patients can help control the accuracy and timing of their own radiation dose. The patient takes a breath of specific depth before the radiation machine turns on. Doing this correctly can increase the distance between the heart and the breast by a centimeter or two, lowering the amount of radiation hitting the heart by as much as 50 percent.

Jeryl Dickson, 62, of Manchester, Conn., was one of the first patients at UConn Health to use the technique, from late 2015 through Feb. 2. Her doctors, including Dowsett, prescribed a course of radiation therapy to make sure there were no lingering cancer cells remaining after a lumpectomy removed her breast cancer.

“I practiced deep breathing and breath holds prior to radiation treatment with the radiation oncology staff so I could feel what it would be like,” says Dickson.

Radiation treatment of breast cancer can be very effective, eradicating tumor cells hiding in the chest wall. But breast cancer survivors have a heightened risk of heart disease that shows itself years later. Ironically, the heart disease stems from the radiation that originally saved their lives. Radiation is a type of light, and like visible light, it has a tendency to reflect and scatter. Just as even the sharpest spotlight has blurred edges where it blends into shadow, even the best-aimed medical radiation beam occasionally scatters into tissue outside of the tumor it targets. Sometimes it hits the heart.

Dr. Agnes Kim, director of the Cardio-Oncology Program at UConn Health, analyzes echocardiography images as one way to monitor cancer patients’ risk of heart disease.

Dr. Agnes Kim, director of the Cardio-Oncology Program at UConn Health, analyzes echocardiography images as one way to monitor cancer patients’ risk of heart disease.
Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health Photo

“We worry about heart attacks down the road, 10 to 15 years after radiation treatment of cancer in the chest. We also worry about inflammation on the outside of the heart in the short term. We don’t exactly know how the radiation damages the tissue, but it definitely seems to accelerate damage to blood vessels. It can also cause scarring and fibrosis damage,” says Dowsett.

But the distance between the heart and the chest wall varies from person to person. And a patient can intentionally increase the heart-chest wall distance by controlling her breathing using the Deep Inspiration Breath Hold.

To make the best use of the Deep Inspiration Breath Hold technique, Dowsett and his colleagues at UConn Health combine it with an optical scanning system supplied by C-RAD. The scanning system is essentially a computer with a camera that models the surface of the skin on the patient’s chest. It tracks the patient’s breathing, and coaches her to inhale just the right amount. As the patient, you wear virtual-reality goggles in which you see a bar graph showing your inhalation, with a box at the top. Your goal is to hit the box and then hold your breath for the 20 to 30 seconds it takes to complete the radiation treatment. Some patients can hold their breath that long; others can’t. It doesn’t matter, because if you exhale, or giggle, or cough, the system sees your chest move out of the perfect range and stops the radiation. It won’t restart until you get yourself back in position and inhale to just the right spot again.

“The deep breathing technique was not difficult at all,” says Dickson, “Honestly, I was more focused on my cancer, and heart health never entered my mind. But I am glad I put my trust in my doctors, and I never had any doubts.”

UConn Health is the only hospital using this technology in Central Connecticut. It’s a powerful, precise way to make sure the radiation beam gets the cancer, and to minimize the risk to other organs.

Previously, “the area we treated inevitably ended up being bigger than the target (tumor) itself,” Dowsett says. “Now we’ve expanded this to abdominal targets such as the pancreas and adrenal lesions,” while sparing healthy surrounding organs.

Individualized

By Lauren Woods
Illustration by Yesenia Carrero

UConn Health’s Personalized Ovarian Cancer Vaccine Enters Clinical Trials

illustration of fingerprints overlayed on top of a woman's ovaries


Ovarian cancer relapses are deadly. UConn Health is testing its pioneering vaccine that could prevent them.

The experimental vaccine, named OncoImmunome, is administered as a simple injection in an outpatient setting. It works by boosting the patient’s immune response to enable it to destroy ovarian cancer cells, so that they do not resurface.

The genetic differences between the surface proteins on a patient’s healthy and cancerous cells constitute the fingerprint of that particular patient’s cancer, which is unlike the fingerprint of any other person’s cancer. Based on these variations, scientists create the personalized vaccine.

“This is the first vaccine of its kind developed for women diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Pramod K. Srivastava, the vaccine’s developer, who is a leading cancer immunotherapy expert and director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health. “The personalized vaccine is specifically created using a patient’s own genomics information to prevent an often life-threatening recurrence of the disease and extend survival.”

There is no early-screening test for ovarian cancer. When a woman with the disease starts to actually experience non-specific abdominal symptoms such as bloating, the disease has often already advanced to stage III or stage IV cancer. Further, there is no effective long-term treatment for ovarian cancer. Even after a woman is successfully treated with traditional surgery and chemotherapy, the disease has a very high recurrence rate within just two years. Tragically, most women die within five years of their diagnosis.

But Srivastava believes that appropriate immunotherapy may stop an ovarian cancer diagnosis from becoming a death sentence.

“There is a huge need for a therapy to actually prevent recurrence in these women and I believe our approach to a vaccine may be just the tool to do it,” says Srivastava.

In October 2014, Srivastava published a study showing that his promising approach to cancer vaccines is effective in reducing tumor growth and in preventing cancer progression in mouse models. Based primarily on that work, the FDA approved testing of the experimental therapy in a human clinical trial.

The individualized vaccine is created using samples of a patient’s own DNA from both her unhealthy cancer cells and her healthy blood cells. Over a period of about two weeks, scientists sequence and cross-reference the entire DNA from both sources to pinpoint the most important genetic differences. These genetic differences constitute the ID card, or fingerprint, of that particular patient’s cancer, which is unlike the ID card or fingerprint of any other person’s cancer. Based on the cancer’s fingerprint, bioinformatic scientists, led by Ion Mandoiu of UConn’s School of Engineering, design the personalized vaccine that is meant to target the cancerous cells’ specific genetic mutations.

UConn Health’s new clinical trial will initially enroll 15 women with stage III/IV ovarian cancer and track them closely for two years, the window of time when recurrence most often occurs. Candidates for the clinical trial are women recently diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer who will have traditional surgery and receive chemotherapy. If cancer-free three months after traditional treatment, the women will receive their personalized vaccine injections once a month for six months. Also, each month their blood will be drawn and evaluated for immune response.

“Our clinical trial will be testing the vaccine for safety and feasibility, but also will be testing whether the vaccine is making a real difference in patients’ blood; the timing of recurrence of cancers in these patients will also be monitored,” says Srivastava. “If, after receiving the vaccine, their cancer hasn’t recurred for a long time in a substantial proportion of women, we will know that the vaccine is promising.”


lab image of Ovarian Cancer cells

This UConn lab image shows how the new ovarian cancer vaccine works. Tiny immune cells known as lymphocytes (small purple dots) target and attack the cancerous ovarian cancer growths (outlined in blue) and prevent them from spreading to benign tissue (pink). Lab image courtesy of Dr. Pramod K. Srivastava


In October 2014, Srivastava published a study showing that his approach to cancer vaccines is effective in reducing tumor growth and in preventing cancer progression in mouse models. Based primarily on that work, the FDA approved testing of the experimental therapy in a human clinical trial.

Dr. Angela Kueck, assistant professor of gynecological oncology, and Dr. Jeffrey Wasser, assistant professor of medicine at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, are the principal and co-investigators of this study.

“We have received over a hundred messages from women in Connecticut and from around the world, in the hope of participating in our study,” says Srivastava.

He adds, “The most meaningful part of my life, at this time, is to serve. I hope that our results a few years from now will show that our unique ovarian cancer vaccine can prevent recurrence of the disease and even extend survival.”

If the clinical trials are successful against ovarian cancer, Srivastava plans to expand testing of his vaccine to bladder cancer and other solid-tumor cancers.

“This first-ever genomics-driven personalized vaccine has the potential to dramatically change how we treat cancer,” says Srivastava.