New NIH Technology Saves a Life

New Technology leads to early detection

Submitted by Northern Inyo Hospital.

A film crew from General Electric Healthcare was at Northern Inyo Hospital recently to capture a local woman’s early breast cancer detection story. Joyce Decho of Bishop credits Dr. Stuart Souders and the NIH Diagnostic Imaging team’s use of the GE Automated Breast Ultra Sound (ABUS) machine with saving her life.

Board certified Radiologist, Dr. Stuart Souders, MD, and breast cancer survivor Joyce Decho share a light moment during the GE filming. In standard mammograms, Decho’s dense breast tissue masked the six millimeter tumor later found by the hospital’s ABUS machine. Souders and Decho credit ABUS with an early detection that saved Decho’s life. Photo by Barbara Laughon/Northern Inyo Hospital

To say Joyce Decho is a unique person would be a huge understatement. The petite, demure woman with flowing salt-and-pepper locks served as the only female lineperson for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for 30-plus years. Her eyes still sparkle as she details passing the physical tests required to work the high voltage lines. She swam every day for an hour and a half with five pound weights strapped to her arms to garner muscle. She worked out as often as she could. She studied endlessly.
She will tell you she thought her professional career would be her biggest challenge in life.

Decho’s healthcare story began routinely enough with a visit to her primary care doctor, who was concerned about skin changes in her breasts. Two standard mammograms showed no issue, but Dr. Souders recognized that Decho’s dense breast tissue could be hiding the true story.

“If a woman has a lot of fibrous breast tissue, it appears white in a mammogram,” Dr. Souders explained. “Cancers also appear white. It can be like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm. That’s why ABUS was felt to be something we could effectively use to find these cancers.”

Dr. Stuart Souders is a story unto himself. He came to Bishop in 2009, to help out the hospital for a few weeks when one of its radiologists left. Souders, who had been working in a large Southern California Breast Cancer center, thought his time at NIH would be short lived. That changed once he began working with local patients.

“I stopped dreading the drive and started wondering how soon I’d be able to come back here to help the patients,” he smiled. Souders eventually left the large center, and while he still has a home in Southern California, his primary work is at Northern Inyo Hospital. “I come up here every other week and do all the breast imaging up here, and I just love it. The hospital is very supportive; we have some the finest equipment for hundreds of miles and I think it’s state of the art in every way.”

Souders discussed the hospital’s new ABUS machine with Decho, explaining that ABUS provided a more sensitive screening for women with dense tissue. Decho agreed to undergo the test, but wondered if there was really any value to gain since the two mammograms showed nothing.

The ABUS test revealed a six millimeter tumor in her left breast.
Dr. Souders still marvels at the ease of the find with the ABUS machine. “This is the kind of cancer we’re finding with ABUS, those killer cancers – very aggressive – that are less than a centimeter and have not spread to the lymph nodes, and that’s the value of ABUS.”
In the recent past, facilities like NIH would have had to rely on hand-held ultrasounds. Souders explains ABUS has brought breast cancer screenings to a new level.

“ABUS was developed to automatically scan both breasts, and eliminate operator variables. Hand held ultrasound examinations are extremely ‘operator dependent,’ whereas ABUS is not,” he said. “ABUS is fast and it’s efficient, and it’s reproducible. With ABUS everything is on the images. Handheld screening ultrasound required 20 to 40 minutes of technologist and/or radiologist time to perform. If a lesion was not found by either of them, it would not be recorded in the image file.”

According to Souders, Decho would have most likely not felt the tumor for a year or possibly two. “If she continued with her regular mammograms, I still don’t think we would have caught it because of her breast density. Most likely it would have made itself known when it was palpable, and by that time, prognosis is not always good, especially for her type of cancer. ”

So how did NIH get this life-changing machine? Souders explained the hospital had been exploring ways to purchase the ABUS system, but fell short of full funding. At about the same time, he gave a breast cancer awareness talk to the Northern Inyo Hospital Auxiliary and discussed the value of an ABUS system. A week later, the Auxiliary offered to give the hospital $50,000 to make the purchase.

Former Hospital CEO Victoria Alexander-Lane noted the important role the NIH Auxiliary has played in the hospital’s success. “Of all the life-saving contributions the auxiliary has made to the hospital, the ABUS donation is the one that has touched the most lives,” she said. “We are very grateful to the auxiliary volunteers for the support they give us.”

Souders agreed. “They saw the value it had for women in our region and they did not hesitate to step up and help. Their gift gave us a better chance for early detection. I think that if you ask Joyce, it was worth the money we spent on the system. That system saved her life.”

As it turns out, Decho was the first cancer case diagnosed at NIH using ABUS screening. “This was another first for me, just not the kind I was used to,” she said. Souders encouraged Decho to take charge of the situation; to educate herself about her options. “He didn’t want me to be a follower, to put my life in someone else’s hands,” she said, before she paused, leaned forward and smiled.
“I don’t believe I’m a follower,” she matter-of-factly stated. “I read up. The more you know, the less afraid you are. I had all my decisions made when I got to the City of Hope.”

Decho chose to have a single mastectomy at the City of Hope. After six months of healing, she underwent a three phase reconstructive surgery.   In all, Joyce Decho’s breast cancer journey has taken just over two years and it’s not over by any means. She has regular follow ups every three months. She’s on medication to reduce her chance of re-occurrence. She needs to undergo twice a year calcium infusions to strengthen her bones. “Then, I guess, I graduate,” she laughed.
Decho openly talks to people about her experience, even showing them her surgery site. “I’ve been told we are fortunate to have a machine like this in the Owens Valley, and I believe that to be so,” she said. “My advice to other women is to have your annual check-up. If you don’t know if you have dense breasts, ask. If you have dense breasts, push for ABUS testing. Early detection saved my life, and it can save others.”

Joyce Decho of Bishop, Dr. Stuart Souders, northern inyo hospital, breast cancer awareness, general electric