By Amy Armstrong
She’s part of a developing revolution in how breast cancer is treated. From a more comprehensive approach including acupuncture, counseling, massage and nutrition to her dual certification as a breast cancer removal surgeon and as a plastic surgeon, she’s leading the charge in changing the outcomes for breast cancer patients.
And she’s practicing right here in Anchorage.
Meet Dr. Mary Jo Wright of the Alaska Breast and Cosmetic Center, a division of the Alaska Cancer Treatment Center in Midtown.
She’s one of just a handful of surgeons practicing in the United States that is dual certified as a cancer removal surgeon and as a plastic surgeon. It means she is qualified to remove breast cancer and to immediately begin the reconstruction procedure herself in the same surgical session.
No more scheduling hassles of having to make sure two different surgeons are available for the same time slot.
“Coordination of schedules can be very tricky,” Wright said. “This model of a dually qualified surgeon truly does have its place in today’s surgical world.”
Becoming dual certified required a lot more schooling; it meant two more years of plastic surgery training on top of the five years of general surgery and one year of cancer removal training.
She believed the ability it would give her to more thoroughly help patients was worth the effort.
Wright made the decision to go back to school to obtain her plastic surgery credentials during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was working in New Orleans for Louisiana State University and Tulane University when the massive hurricane hit decimating the city and forcing patients to relocate to other cities until rebuilding efforts were underway. That process took months and months. In the meantime, many of Wright’s medical colleagues were laid off from the universities as there weren’t spaces for them to work. The main hospital had been condemned, Wright said.
Fast-forward 18 months later when residents of New Orleans began to return to the devastated city, health care wasn’t at the top of their list — rebuilding a home was. Many came back having missed their mammograms. As routine care resumed and missed mammograms were made up significantly tardy, the numbers of cancer positive mammograms the following year significantly increased for the local population. Wright had a front row seat for watching her patients try to rebuild their homes and lives, while at the same time receiving a cancer diagnosis.
It was too much.
“These women were putting their own health care on the back burner to make sure their families were OK,” she said. “These women were struggling to get their homes and families back together and make some money to feed their kids and then on top of that, they are now diagnosed with breast cancer. It was just heart-breaking to watch all of this.”
Then, add in the scheduling factor of trying to line up a plastic surgeon for the same day when Wright was performing removal surgeries.
Again, it was too much.
Wright decided something had to change.
She figured she may as well be the one to take action.
So, she went back to school to add the plastic surgery credential.
She knew that women who had missed having a mammogram were in actuality missing not just one year, but two. She believed these women shouldn’t have to wait even more to accommodate the scheduling of surgeons.
Wright said she learned two other valuable lessons in the medical aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The first is the important role the patient’s own record-keeping can play in a natural disaster.
Sure, the hospitals had patient records on file. But the hospital’s computers were destroyed by Katrina’s waves.
“The electronic record completely failed us,” Wright said.
It is why she sets up a personal binder for each of her patient’s and encourages them to keep copies of their own records – copies of biopsy reports, radiology images, treatment plans are also included on Wright’s list of patient must-haves.
“Of course, they do have to remember to take those with when they must leave due to a natural disaster,” Wright said. “But at least there is a second set of records.”
The other thing she learned is the healing value of hugs.
“I always hug my patients – every time I see them in the office,” Wright said. “When are dealing with breast cancer treatment, you are often talking about removing a part of the body that is highly symbolic to the female identity. My patients need to feel like people; like women and mothers and daughters and not like their disease.”
That’s a big part of why she accepted the offer to move from the South to way up north on the Last Frontier.
She’d heard about the unique, patient-centric approach being used at the Alaska Cancer Treatment Center and she wanted to be a part of its progressive approach.
She arrived in Anchorage Dec. 2017. It took a few months to get her licensure and hospital privileges, but she’s been busy ever since getting acquainted with Alaskan women.
“A lot of the women here do not want the conventional treatment and I really like that about Alaskan women. They have taught me to stretch my ideas of what cancer treatment can look like,” Wright said. “I have really learned the value of not just throwing another pharmaceutical at the patient who is dealing with side effects. So many other things have proven to be instrumental in easing symptoms and helping women return to their version of normal.”
Learn more about Dr. Mary Jo Wright and the Alaska Breast and Cosmetic Center online at www. https://akbreastcenter.com/about-us/meet-the-team/dr-mary-jo-wright/.
Reach Amy Armstrong at: firstname.lastname@example.org.