January 25, 2024

Harnessing our system of cancer care to deliver access for patients in Western Mass.

January 25, 2024

When Ann Chiara heard the words breast cancer, her heart raced as her whole world changed in an instant. In the days that followed, Chiara knew that she wanted the best that medicine had to offer for the type of cancer she had.

A Northampton resident, Chiara was diagnosed with breast cancer following a mammogram and biopsy at the Mass General Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Her experience demonstrates the power of Mass General Brigham’s integrated, comprehensive approach to cancer, harnessing the power of our world-class academic medical centers and outstanding community hospitals, who work together to provide unparalleled access to life-changing care.

Chiara’s recommended treatment plan included a mastectomy. Chiara decided she wanted to have a breast surgeon perform the procedure. Acting on a friend’s recommendation, she scheduled an appointment with surgical oncologist Michelle Specht, MD, who is on staff at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Specht, an expert in nipple-sparing techniques, conducted the mastectomy at Newton-Wellesley. Immediately after, plastic and reconstructive surgeon Eleanor Tomczyk, MD, inserted a breast implant. The entire process took just a matter of hours, and Chiara (driven home by her husband Greg) was back in Northampton by that afternoon.

“We were so impressed with Newton-Wellesley,” Chiara said. “The whole procedure went very smoothly, and I felt comfortable and well taken care of. I’m so pleased with this connection between Cooley Dickinson and Newton-Wellesley.” She has since returned to Newton-Wellesley for a few follow-up visits at the Auerbach Breast Center.

The second phase of Chiara’s treatment plan—radiation therapy—took place entirely at Cooley Dickinson. Her five-week regimen entailed going to the hospital for roughly 15-minute sessions each weekday.

“Being able to do it at Cooley Dickinson was terrific,” said Chiara, whose cancer is now in remission. “I could actually walk there from my house, which was good exercise and very therapeutic.”

John Sheldon, MD, medical director, Radiation Oncology at Cooley Dickinson, said that inter-hospital collaboration on cancer care can take many forms. For example, providers at Cooley Dickinson may:

  • Consult with colleagues with subspecialized expertise across Mass General Brigham in developing the patient’s treatment plan.
  • Refer the patient for specialized surgical expertise or access to a clinical trial of a promising new drug therapy.
  • Offer the patient radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy following an initial consultation and evaluation at a Mass General Brigham facility.

“Having access to the entire Mass General Brigham system is a real advantage for us,” Dr. Sheldon said. “Our patients benefit from that collaboration and that access—whether that’s surgical expertise, clinical trials or even proton therapy available at Mass General.”

“The coordination and collaboration involved in delivering specialty care helps us optimize outcomes for patients without them needing to travel long distances,” added medical oncologist Aron Rosenstock, MD, who is based at Newton-Wellesley and Mass General but spends a day a month at Cooley Dickinson, where he continues to see Chiara. “In Ann’s case, that could only have happened by having specialists at Newton-Wellesley work so closely with the Cooley Dickinson team.”