While Lisa Eyerkuss successfully beat back breast cancer four years ago, she was left with a visible reminder of the experience: four tiny black radiation markers on her chest and one on her back.
"They're small and it's not that I'm a vain person, but when I wear a low-cut dress or am getting dressed after a shower, I can see those dots," said the 57-year-old Little Silver resident. "Some women see them as battle scars that they earned, but they have a bad connection for me."
She assumed she was stuck with them. However, progress in the field of laser surgery means the markers can be now removed much more easily than ever.
That has led one breast surgeon, Stephen Chagares, of Tinton Falls, to partner with a plastic surgery practice to remove them without charge for cancer patients.
"Many people's marks are hidden, so they don't mind them, while others see them as a badge of honor that they don't want to remove," Chagares said of the blue-black, 3-4 millimeter-sized dots placed on the body to align the radiation dose and ensure it is aimed at the same target each treatment session.
For some breast cancer patients, however, visible spots near the cleavage or throat make them self-conscious, he said. "For these individuals, the markers essentially reveal their medical identity without their consent, exposing to the world that they had breast cancer or some other cancer that involved radiation - which may be very uncomfortable for them," he said.
When Chagares heard that colleagues at the nearby Plastic Surgery Center in Shrewsbury had acquired a high-speed laser that reduced the tattoo removal process from as many as a dozen sessions to as few as three, he came up with a way to help his patients shed that souvenir of treatment.
Since Chagares was already trained in laser surgery, he wondered if he could use the Center's machine for his patients at times when the machine would otherwise be idle.
The plastic surgery practice readily agreed to share its laser with Chagares. "We're very involved with the breast cancer community, and this program is a great fit that we feel good to be a part of," said Plastic Surgery Center reconstructive surgeon Andrew Elkwood.
The program was launched earlier this year. Since then more than a dozen breast cancer patients have already had their radiation marks removed.
Most insurance plans don't cover removal of radiation markers, Chagares said, a reality that made him even more intent on offering this service -- which could normally cost individuals up to $1,000 - for free to anyone who wants it.
Eyerkuss, the breast cancer survivor, said he was thrilled to see her markers nearly disappear as the laser sessions went along. "Those marks bring me back to a really difficult time in my life, and we shouldn't have to live with something that triggers bad memories," she said.
"It helps a woman or man come through it, go back to work, and be themselves again. They don't have to be pitied or reminded of their experience for the rest of their lives," said Chagares.
He said tha as far as he knows, no one else in the state is offering a free ongoing program for patients regardless of thetype of cancer or the location of the patient's treatment. He'd like to see that change.
"My hope is that we become so busy doing these procedures that we inspire other practices statewide to get involved," he said....Read more