By Muriel J. Smith
February 2! Cryoablation Day. By 11:00, the breast cancer I had only known I had for 47 days would be dead in my chest and I’d be on my way to keep a luncheon date with a friend. Having had procedures and tests at Centra State Medical Center several times in the past, I knew they called you a day in advance to remind you of your appointment. When I had not received a call by 2 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 1, I called the hospital to be sure my procedure was still on schedule. They laughed good naturedly at my excitement and assured me everything was right on target and I was scheduled to be called sometime after 4 p.m. to verify it. I did get the call at 4:01 p.m.
I was excited about this cryoablation for many reasons: yes, I had breast cancer, but thanks to that mammography in December, I was diagnosed early. I met the criteria for this wonderful new procedure which involved a needle being inserted to freeze the tumor rather than a surgical knife to remove it and some of my breast tissue along with it. And participating in the trial meant Ice Cure Medical, the company that created the procedure and equipment, would be one step closer in its move forward with what I strongly believe is an easier, cheaper, less painful and no after-effects way of getting rid of cancer. I was more than ready.
I started the day with my regular schedule….6:30 mass at St. Rose, a few minutes to chat with my fellow church-goers, then 45 minutes at the Centra State Fitness Center walking three miles on the treadmill. But I still arrived at the Star and Barry Tobias Women’s Center at 8 a.m., way too early for the 9:30 scheduled procedure. I chatted with the friendly receptionists there, helped myself to a hot drink from the machine, and picked up a magazine to read.
It was only minutes before Melissa Olsen, the cancer navigator, came into say hello, brought me to the dressing room, and introduced me to Sue Jepsen, the nurse from Ice Cure Med who is present for every one of the procedures during the trial. Dr. Jayne Craig and another nurse from Dr. Tomkovich’s office were also there. I told Sue I was happy there would be no after-effects, since I had a luncheon date planned for noon and a 4 p.m. meeting in Atlantic Highlands to finalize plans for a trip to Israel I had scheduled for the end of the month.
I didn’t even take my shoes off for the procedure! Just my bra and blouse before donning another one of the Women’s Center’s heated fluffy robes and walking across the hall to where Dr. Tomkovich was making his last minute preparations for killing my cancer. Everything was ready, the technician was at the ultra sound machine, the Ice-Cure console with its interface, multiple control options, push buttons, touch screen and foot pedal was all in readiness for Dr. Tomkovich’s experienced and knowledgeable use, and I was excited. Dr. Tomkovich, by now used to my interminable questions and curiosity, explained that it is actually the needle, not my body, that receives the liquid nitrogen; the closed end needle that would be inserted directly into the center of the tumor would be frozen by the liquid nitrogen to approximately -150 degrees centigrade and would last seven minutes. The time, he explained, was based on his calculations of the size of the tumor and the target tissue he wanted to kill with it. He told me he would create an ‘ice ball’ around the tumor to be sure yet any possibly unseen cancer in the surrounding areas was also frozen. Basically, I would see on the ultra sound about a 2 inch ice cube made from my breast tissue.
After the first seven minutes, the needle would remain in place but would be warmer for seven minutes, giving my tissue the chance to melt the ice. Finally, there would be another seven minute period of freezing and it would be done. No problem with that luncheon appointment, he assured me.
I am sure there are lots of precise technical issues in place, from judging the proper size needle to use, the number of minutes the tumor would be frozen, and other facts Dr. Tomkovich knows. I was just content to know he’d swab my breast with a local anesthetic…isn’t freezing a natural anesthetic?….insert a second needle with saline to ensure my skin didn’t get ‘frost-bitten’ from within and he had a steady hand and great eyesight to put that needle right smack dab in the middle of a tumor that had no business being in the middle of my breast. Besides, again at my request, he positioned me so I, too, could see this magic on the ultra sound screen!
There were precise timings, precision insertions, a lot of medical talk I didn’t understand, and intense interest among everyone in the room. I was swabbed, the needle inserted, and wonder of wonders…I could see a little ice ball building up inside me! No pain, no feeling of anything. Just pure sheer magic performed by an ultra competent and confident radiologist!
There was some small talk during the seven minutes between the two freezings, and the patient doctor even answered more of my questions. Then, after the second freezing, he took out the needles, dabbed at the few drops of blood from the tiny puncture, put on a butterfly band-aid and thanked me! Thanked me! Here was a physician who had just eliminated cancer in my body without a speck of pain and he was thanking me! Life truly is wonderful.
I dressed, said my goodbyes and thanks, called my children to let them know the magic had been accomplished, and walked out to my car to while away another hour before my lunch appointment. I had been told I might have some slight bruising; perhaps a black and blue mark, but if there was anything else untoward, I should call because nothing else should be happening. Nothing else ever did.
I made my 4 p.m. meeting on my trip to Israel, too, and shortly after I arrived home, got a call from Sue, the Ice-Cure nurse. Was I really going to Israel, she asked? Because that’s where Ice Cure is located, and the staff and technicians there would love to see you if you could manage it while in Israel! Sue explained they talk to doctors and medical personnel all the time about their invention, but had not spoken with a patient, and would I be willing?
Willing? Would I be willing to meet the people who invented the procedure that rid me of breast cancer in 21 minutes without pain or anesthesia? It would be the highlight of my trip to Israel.
What are the chances of scheduling a trip to Israel and Israel being the country with the gutsy staff and creative minds that launched a trial for breast cancer cures? What are the chances that Dr. Ken Tomkovich at Centra State Medical Center in Freehold would be the only radiologist and the only hospital in the Garden State to participate in that trial? For that matter, what are the chances that I, who had lived in Highlands more than 40 years, would now be a Freehold resident with proximity to Centra State? What are the chances that I would have a mammogram only to get a $50 discount on a body massage that would detect cancer just weeks before my trip? People call it “coincidence.”
I say everything happens for a reason!
Muriel J. Smith is a 55 year Monmouth County resident. A Freehold resident for the pasted 10 years, Muriel lived in Highlands for 40 years and spent 10 years traveling the country in a RV with her beloved husband Jimmy. She is an award winning reporter and was an editor of Forbes Magazine and The Courier. Widowed for the last 10 years, Muriel is the mother of four (one daughter deceased) a grandmother of 9 and great-grandmother of 6.