Treasure Valley health systems highlight importance of cancer screenings, new treatments

Posted at 5:30 PM, May 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-06 19:30:36-04

TREASURE VALLEY, Idaho — Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Idaho, making the state's low cancer screening rate a concern, but health experts say it's not too late to schedule your checkup.

Thousands of Americans missed medical visits and regular mammogram appointments during the pandemic, delaying potential cancer diagnoses.

"We have seen the repercussions of that, with some women coming in saying they had discovered a lump months ago at the beginning of COVID but didn't come in for quite some time," Saint Alphonsus Diagnostic Radiologist Dr. Carolyn Coffman said. "That's always difficult to deal with."

The CDC reported in June 2021 that the total number of cancer screenings through its National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program declined by 87% for breast cancer and 84% for cervical cancer during April 2020 compared to previous five-year averages in the same month.

2021 CDC National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program data

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According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the Gem State ranks near last in cancer screening rates. Most recent data from the CDC shows that over 3,000 Idahoans died of cancer in 2020, a number that could increase due to the pandemic.

"Here in Idaho, in 2022, there will be an estimated 1,500 new breast cancers," Coffman said. "And sadly, as many as 250 women will die of breast cancer this year."

Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's are just two health systems offering cancer care services in Idaho. Dr. Ian Qureshi, a medical oncologist at Saint Alphonsus, said the department treats each cancer - and patient - differently through a treatment best suited to their diagnosis.

"There are all sorts of new immunotherapies and targeted therapies that are very effective, yet don't have as many side effects as the old traditional chemotherapy drugs," he said.

While patients still undergo chemotherapy treatment, Qureshi said he'd seen remarkable results through new innovative medicines. Qureshi said that a recent patient from Caldwell entered his care with a "huge breast mass" after hiding it for months.

"I was able to give her one of the newer drugs that had very minimal side effects, and the whole thing disappeared within six to eight months," he said. "She was so happy that she could actually move her arm. Before, she could only move it a little bit, and (this) improved her quality of life so much."

Maximizing quality of life is one of Qureshi's highest priorities when caring for patients.

"We can individualize the treatment and ensure that someone is getting the best available option," Qurashi said. "We like to maximize effectiveness, but make sure that it's not too taxing on patients so that they can live their lives as ordinarily as possible."

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Both health systems offer cancer screenings. Officials say the process is quick, easy and potentially lifesaving.

"The earlier you find cancer, the more likely a potential cure with minimally invasive treatments," Medical Director for St. Luke's Cancer Institute, Dr. Silvana Bucur, said.

Idaho News 6 reporter Madison Hardy, left, speaks with Dr. Carolyn Coffman

Women should receive mammograms, a screening procedure that detects breast cancer, every two years or more if they are at higher risk.

"We all take care of our cars. We would never think about going five years without changing the oil in our car," Coffman said. "So why wouldn't we maintain our bodies? Which is something that can't be replaced."

Factors that can lead to a higher risk of cancer are:

  • A family history of certain cancers 
  • Age 
  • Alcohol and drug use 
  • Obesity and diet 
  • Breast density 

Coffman said mammogram technology had significantly improved since she entered the industry three decades ago. Notably, in January 2015, Saint Alphonsus implemented a 3D mammography device that "takes a movie of the breast," allowing medical professionals to scan the patient accurately.

"This has been a wonderful, wonderful breakthrough in mammography, and it's in use all over the country all over the world," Coffman said.

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As the Treasure Valley grows, so does the need for medical services. Bucur says St. Luke's is ready to answer the call with more innovative treatments and the anticipated hire of three additional oncology staff next year.

"We all feel that it's important, whatever part of the country you're in, to be able to provide the same kind of health care," she said. "We try to bring state-of-the-art resources here and make it affordable for all of our patients."

One of the newest additions, launched this April, was the Cell Therapy Program — CAR T.

Bucur said CAR T therapy re-engineers a patient's T-cells, which aid in immune response, to "fight against" the individual's cancerous cells. Though she said it is currently limited to certain types of cancer – leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma – it shows promise for future treatments.

"It's a team approach," Bucur said. "We're not treating diseases. We're treating patients."

Related: 'There's a survivor network': Flock Cancer organizer shares her story

Saint Alphonsus' mobile mammogram units are rolling down to Harrison Boulevard in Boise this weekend for the Flock Cancer fundraiser on Saturday.

Treasure Valley residents can schedule a screening today through Saint Alphonsus or St. Luke's online.