Breast cancer awareness advocate learns firsthand about the disease

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

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Part of Diane Rush's job as marketing supervisor for Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare is to educate women about the importance of getting yearly


And as one of the people who brought the annual Think Pink campaign to Carson City seven years ago, she was well aware of what women need to do to guard against becoming the one woman in nine diagnosed with breast cancer.

Yet despite all of that, Rush didn't think she was that one in nine. Busy with putting on the Think Pink campaign in 2007, she skipped her annual mammogram. It wasn't until the 2008 event was rolling around that she went in for the test.

And on Oct. 1, the day of the Think Pink kickoff party, her doctor gave her the news. She had breast cancer.

"It was just really eerie," Rush said. "I saw friends who were breast cancer survivors, some that were still in the middle of treatment, and it was a weepy night. It was very weepy."

In an instant, Rush went from being an advocate for breast cancer awareness to a member of what she describes as an elite club that no one asks to be a part of.

"The irony of the whole thing is that I am telling women, don't be fooled, you are at risk," Rush said. "And I was fooled, I was at risk. I felt, it's not going to be me, there's other people out there who are going to be the one in nine. Even though I'm saying that to everyone and trying to educate them and have them do everything, I fooled myself."

Another part of Rush's job is to publicize the brand new Cancer Center at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center. The new facility, tucked away on the northwest corner of the campus, is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment for fighting cancer.

Rush would get a first-hand lesson on how lucky she was to have this new center.

Unlike in years past, the center is a one-stop shop for cancer patients, who used to have to drive from place to place for services.

"We always said that the reason we put the Cancer Center together in once place is because of the fatigue cancer patients suffer from," Rush said. "And until I went through it, I didn't realize how important that really was. Especially at the beginning, you are going back and forth between the oncologist and radiation therapy, and trying to feel better so you can go to the resource center so they can tell you what to expect.

"I'm glad I didn't have to get into my car and go somewhere, because I wouldn't

probably make it, I would say, forget that part of it."

Her first stop was the Cancer Resource Center on the second floor, run by Ann

Proffitt. Proffitt and her staff are all cancer survivors, which helps them inform patients what to expect on the long road ahead.

"Our goal is to help people buy into that survivorship aspect of cancer," Proffitt said. "When you get through this, you will come out the other end a survivor. For some, that may be three weeks, or three months. For others, it could be 30 years or a lifetime."

The Resource Center offers a variety of services, from an extensive reading library to yoga and exercise classes. They have a massage therapist who is skilled in working with patients' special needs. They also have hats, scarfs, cosmetics and about 400 donated wigs for women who lose their hair during treatment.

Proffitt and her staff also work closely with patients to help them sort through the financial implications of treatment, including how to deal with insurance, what to do if a patient doesn't have insurance, tips on maintaining a work schedule, etc.

The entire Cancer Center was built with donated funds, a huge accomplishment when the expensive equipment is taken into account.

"The personal side of it, all I can say is I have so much gratitude," Rush said. "The change in me has been gratitude, mostly because without the community support, without the people who helped by donating, I wouldn't have that freedom. We wouldn't be able to have this technology here."

Joe Herrick, director of medical physics for the Cancer Center, directs a team of professionals who use two highly advanced linear accelerators that can focus beams of radiation to destroy cancerous tissue while sparing as much healthy tissue as possible.

"In the old days without all the computers, we had to treat healthy tissue to make sure we got the tumor also," Herrick said. "Now we can focus more and more on just the tumor, and that way the patient doesn't have as bad side effects."

Technicians use a specially tuned CT scanner to create a three-dimensional model of the patient, and then use computers to simulate the best treatment program for their particular form of cancer, which typically takes place every day over the course of several weeks. For Diane Rush, it would take 33 days.

After the program has been successfully modeled and approved by the patient's doctor, then the patient is brought into one of the two heavily shielded vaults that contain the linear accelerators.

Using laser beams and small tattoos placed on each patient, the technicians can set them up in exactly the right place for the computer to administer their treatment program. Then, the $1.8 million accelerator powers photons or electrons to 99 percent of the speed of light to enter the body.

"Getting radiation therapy is definitely not fun," Herrick said. "But there's a good number who end up finding it's not as bad as they thought. The treatment itself is painless. They don't feel the radiation going into them."

Radiation therapy takes up the first floor of the complex, while oncologists administer chemotherapy on the second floor. Each patient has a different mix of one or the other, or both, to combat their disease. Rush's treatment program called only for surgery and radiation, which her doctors estimate gives her an 87 percent chance of the cancer not recurring. Adding chemo would have increased that to 92 percent, but she decided the side effects weren't worth the extra five percent.

"For me, I was OK with 87 percent, so I didn't go through the chemo, and I was grateful to have that choice," Rush said. "In the old days, they couldn't do all of that stuff. They just zapped it with whatever they could."

The advances in services available in Carson City now mean that people don't have to go to Reno or San Francisco to receive treatment for all but the most rare forms of cancer, according the Herrick.

"People in the Carson City area can feel confident they are getting top-notch service in terms of radiation therapy with the best new equipment, and that they aren't compromising at all by being treated here," Herrick said.

Last Friday, Rush received her last dose of radiation. She will have to continue taking medication for five years to ward off the cancer's return. And she's already thinking about this year's Think Pink campaign.

"It's always been dear to my heart, but will definitely be closer," Rush said. "I will stand on my soapbox a little higher, and be able to tell people how important it is. The awareness is the huge part. Don't get into that comfort zone thinking it's not you."

Contact reporter Kirk Caraway at or (775) 881-1261.


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