Although skilled general surgeons have been performing cancer surgeries at Lutheran Hospital for decades, advances in the diagnosis, staging and treatment of cancer and an increased understanding of its general biology have resulted in hospitals across the country creating a separate surgical oncology service line. Lutheran Hospital, which launched its surgical oncology program in 2014, is now home to three fellowship-trained surgical oncologists: breast oncology surgeon Rachael Hayes, MD, surgical oncologist Neal Agee, MD, and gynecologic oncologist Iwona Podzielinski, MD.
Hayes joined Lutheran Medical Group in August after completing an interdisciplinary surgical breast oncology fellowship at the University of Iowa, a Society of Surgical Oncology-accredited program. During her residency and fellowship training, Hayes was responsible for evaluating patients, developing treatment plans, presenting plans for interdisciplinary team discussion and performing operations.
“I went to medical school to become a surgeon, and I was hooked on breast oncology early in my residency,” says Hayes. “I was constantly inspired by the bravery of the patients and the compassion of the breast surgeons with whom I worked.”
Although invasive, noninvasive and recurrent breast cancers are the most common conditions Hayes treats, she also cares for patients with all types of breast disease, including breast pain, benign tumors, cysts and nipple discharge.
When patients, who are usually referred by other physicians or through the Lutheran Cancer Resource Center, are diagnosed with cancer, Hayes oversees the surgical portion of disease management and coordinates additional treatment and testing, which may include chemotherapy and/or radiation.
“Treating cancer is a team effort,” says Hayes. “I work as part of an interdisciplinary care team that strives to ensure patients receive well-coordinated care and have the best possible outcomes. We strive for short intervals between diagnosis and treatment. Treatment is based on patient preferences, each patient’s unique circumstances and care team discussions and recommendations. Patients are happier and more compliant with their treatment plan when they take ownership in developing it.”
Most breast cancer treatment involves surgery at some stage. Hayes performs lumpectomies with a focus on oncoplastic techniques, a method of removing breast cancer while retaining the breast’s normal shape and appearance. This technique is gaining popularity with patients and is commonly practiced by fellowship-trained breast surgeons across the country. If patients choose or require a mastectomy, she operates in conjunction with plastic surgeons so reconstruction is immediate when possible.
Although Hayes has big plans for Lutheran’s breast oncology program in the next few years, her immediate focus is on the daily care of her patients.
“I was drawn to Lutheran because of the network’s commitment to excellence in patient care, which aligns perfectly with my patient-care philosophy,” says Hayes. “I focus on one day at a time, one patient at a time because the rest takes care of itself. When I see a stressed, anxious patient sit back at the end of a consultation and thank me for explaining the process and tell me she feels so much better, that is a good day.
“We are winning the war against breast cancer,” Hayes continues. “There are constantly new treatment modalities and research studies available, so there is almost always something to offer the patient. Although there is occasionally the need to deliver disappointing news, more often there is the joy of seeing a patient who has reached the coveted five-, 10- and even 20-year survival marks cancer free.
“I want my patients to know I am never too busy for them,” Hayes concludes. “These women are on a journey and, whether that journey is days, weeks, months or years, I am here for them. They are never alone.”