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Breast surgeon: What to expect when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer

As part of a four-part series on breast cancer, we interviewed breast cancer experts about their individual specialties and what newly-diagnosed patients can expect.

Bill Barber, M.D., a breast surgeon at Piedmont, explains how he and his team counsel patients through breast cancer surgery and recovery.

“Unfortunately, the new diagnosis of breast cancer is often so scary for these patients,” says Dr. Barber. “They say, ‘Am I going to be okay? Am I going to need chemotherapy? Am I going to lose my hair? Will I lose my breast?’ These are gigantic concerns for women.”

Dr. Barber addresses these fears at the beginning of each patient’s appointment.

“I let them know that the majority of our patients do beautifully, get well and have a full recovery,” he says.

The initial patient visit

Dr. Barber and his team meet with breast cancer patients early in their journey. Some patients have found a mass, while others have had abnormal mammogram results. Most are referred to the breast surgeon by their primary care physician or gynecologist.

“We actually help the patient navigate the whole process,” he explains.

His team helps patients determine:

  • If they should have surgery or chemotherapy first
  • What type of surgery they need
  • The appropriate reconstructive procedure, if needed
  • The other specialists they need to see, such as a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and breast reconstruction surgeon

Diagnosis and treatment

“Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment have come so far,” says Dr. Barber. “There have been so many advances. There are kinder, more compassionate options for patients.”

This includes:

  • Dramatically improved reconstructive techniques
  • The ability to save the nipple for many patients
  • Partial breast radiation where radiation is applied only to the lumpectomy cavity rather than the entire breast
  • Higher survival rates
  • Better oncology drugs
  • Hormonal treatments
  • Genetic testing to assess a patient’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer
  • Genetic testing on the tumor itself, which can help determine the best course of treatment and save up to one-third of patients from needing chemotherapy

Dr. Barber says when he began his career, he expected patients to say breast cancer treatment was the worst thing they’ve ever been through. Instead, he says they say the opposite, telling him they appreciate relationships more and worry about insignificant problems less.

“Many patients will tell you that it was a battle and it wasn’t fun, but it has enhanced their life and rewarded them by helping them appreciate the little things in life that we experience daily that we would not normally appreciate otherwise,” he says.

“That was a big, big surprise for me to hear patients say they actually now get more enjoyment out of life than they did before because of this experience and because it helped them put things in perspective so much.”

For more information about breast cancer surgery and treatment, visit Piedmont Cancer Center

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