October 9, 2008

She Takes the Sting Out of Breast Cancer Diagnosis Cynthia Carrasco is Breast Health Coordinator at Baptist Medical Center-Beaches.


When Susan Hitch of Ponte Vedra Beach learned she had breast cancer, her doctor sent her to get a magnetic resonance imaging exam to see if the disease had spread.

While awaiting the results at home, she panicked.

Sobbing, she imagined the worst.

Then she picked up the phone to call Cynthia Carrasco, breast health coordinator for Baptist Medical Center-Beaches.

Carrasco called the lab, got the results and called Hitch to tell her that the disease had not spread, and that everything was going to be fine.

"She's been invaluable to me. She tells you what to expect before it happens," Hitch said one recent day during a visit to Carrasco's office. "She's comforting because she's been through it. She knows what I'm going through."

Since taking the position as the Beaches hospital's breast health coordinator in April 2006, Carrasco has helped breast cancer patients deal with their disease from the time it's diagnosed.

Most of her patients are female, but some are male; breast cancer also strikes men.

Since her services are provided free by the hospital, patients don't need health insurance to see her.

During the past five years, hospitals have become increasingly focused on breast health because breast cancer is one of the more curable cancers if caught early, she said.

The disease is in the spotlight this month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and across the country, hospitals are opening breast centers where people can come for diagnosis, education and referrals.

Carrasco said her job is important, "because there are many, many, many types of breast cancer" that can all be treated differently, depending on many factors.

Depending on a patient's needs, she can help them get further diagnostic testing, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or reconstructive surgery.

She counsels them about their particular type of breast cancer and options for treatment, educates them about the disease in general, works as an advocate to help find them financial resources for treatment, and gives emotional support, visiting them in the hospital before and after surgery, and accompanying them to doctor visits.

After working as an emergency room registered nurse for 20 years in Oregon, Carrasco said she became a breast health professional after her breast cancer was diagnosed in 2002, the same year her sister Irene died of the disease at age 41.

Her sister had discovered a large lump in her breast several years earlier, but ignored it because there was no family history of the disease.

By the time she saw a doctor, the disease had advanced to stage three and chemotherapy, radiology and other treatments were unsuccessful.

When Carrasco found a lump in her own breast at age 47, she went for a mammogram. The disease was in stage one, and had not spread to the lymph nodes, and she was treated successfully with a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

She said her experience gives her empathy and insight to help others.

"She shows up in your hospital room after surgery with heart- shaped pillows to put under your arms," said Hitch, whose breast cancer was diagnosed Aug. 1.

Told the disease had not spread to her lymph nodes, Hitch decided to have a double mastectomy to eliminate all the cancer cells from her body.

She sees Carrasco for counseling her about what could happen next, including possible chemotherapy.

Carrasco recently accompanied patient Larry Smith of Jacksonville Beach to a post-operative doctor visit.

Smith, 66, discovered a lump in his left breast while working on his job as a mechanic at Beach Bowl.

Reaching across a steel bar to fix a pin-setting machine, Smith felt something like a marble in his chest, but ignored it, hoping it would go away.

When it didn't, he saw a doctor, who sent him for a mammogram, and he had surgery Sept. 18.

"I'd never heard of men having breast cancer," said Smith, who will see a medical oncologist next for possible chemotherapy.

Carrasco, who teaches community breast health classes, said because 1 percent of men get breast cancer, it's important they see a doctor immediately if they find a lump in their chest.

For women, she urges breast self awareness through monthly self exams, annual mammograms for women 40 and older and annual physician exams. She teaches ways to decrease risk through proper nutrition and exercise.

Researchers don't know why incidences of breast cancer are increasing, Carrasco said.

The cancer starts from the mutation of a single cell, from which a tumor grows, "but what causes the mutation - environment, stress, weak immune system, genetic link? We don't know.

"We do know that early diagnosis can increase survival chances hugely."

When Carrasco started working as a breast health nurse, she didn't tell patients at first that she was a survivor.

Then one day, she had a patient who was "having a hard time," distraught that she had the disease.

"When I told her I had breast cancer, her attitude changed," Carrasco said.

"She relaxed and was able to look at it not as the death sentence she thought it was."

When most people learn they have the disease, they think, "I'm going to die," Carrasco said.

"You look at mortality for the first time."

But in most cases, breast cancer is not a death sentence, she said. Detected early, "it's very treatable."Maggie FitzRoy can also be reached at (904) 249-4947, ext. 6320.BREAST CANCER AWARENESS- For more information about Cynthia Carrasco's services as breast health coordinator at Baptist Medical Center-Beaches, call her at 627- 1592. Her services are free.- The American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk is slated to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, at the SeaWalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach. The annual event aims to raise awareness and dollars to fight breast cancer. For more information, call 249-0022, ext. 114.

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