Vigilance. It’s the key to detecting concerns about your health before they turn into larger, life changing complications. Vigilance means when something doesn’t seem quite right, report it to your doctor. And always stay current with recommended screenings. They can save your life.
For Kristen Snader, 34, vigilance combined with state-of-the-art surgical standards and attentive, compassionate care at UPMC Susquehanna, stopped cancer.
As the mother of a busy teenager, Kristen knows taking care of her health affects her daughter’s well being, too. She keeps up with doctor’s visits and health screenings including having the cervical cancer screening, called a Pap test, as part of her gynecological exam.
The Pap test is a study of a small tissue sample from the cervix to look for pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. In the early 1900s, cervical cancer was the leading cause of death from cancer for women. Dr. George Papanicola, founder of the Pap smear, developed the screening test dramatically reduced the incidence of cervix cancer, which is now considered preventable for women who are tested according to screening guidelines.
After a routine appointment at UPMC Susquehanna’s OB/GYN, Kristen was surprised when her caregiver, Sandy Lentz, CRNP, called to say she had some suspicious cells. "I wasn’t super concerned,” says Kristen. “I tried to stay positive because I knew this happened in a lot of cases and turned out to be nothing.”
Kristen was referred to Dr. Natasha Alligood-Percoco, a new gynecologist at OB/GYN, for an additional in-office screening test called a colposcopy or punch biopsy. Kristen was stunned when she received the results. She had cervical cancer.
“I was pretty devastated,” says Kristen. “It was such a scary sounding diagnosis. I made an appointment to come in and discuss treatment options, and Dr. Alligood was great. She was very positive and optimistic.”
They scheduled a procedure called a cold knife cone biopsy to determine the stage of cancer and whether or not it was an invasive type.
“Because Kristen got regular screenings, we were able to catch her cancer at a fairly early stage,” says Dr. Alligood. “The tumor was in the 1A1 category, which means that the cells, though invasive, were still only within the cervix. It was not the absolute earliest stage, but the cells were under three millimeters in depth and under seven millimeters in width.”
Dr. Alligood consulted with a gynecologic oncologist, a specialist in cancers of the female reproductive system, and provided Kristen with treatment options according to the most current protocols. One recommendation was a hysterectomy performed as a minimally invasive surgery with an assist from the da Vinci robot.
At UPMC Susquehanna, robotic-assisted surgery is used for gynecologic, urological, and heart surgeries and will soon be used in general surgery. Led by an experienced surgeon, robotic procedures are conducted through small incisions. A microscopic camera, inserted through one of the incisions, is used to project images from inside the surgical site. In the case of hysterectomy, the surgeon uses the robotic hand to maneuver the tiny surgical instruments through the site to remove the uterus and other associated organs and tissue with minimal disturbance to remaining internal organs.
“The fact that we offer that standard of care here is outstanding. The minimally invasive approach lowers the risk for infection and for internal scarring,” says Dr. Alligood. “It’s typically associated with less pain, less blood loss and a shorter recovery time, too.”
Kristen opted for the minimally invasive hysterectomy. She liked knowing there would be smaller incisions, and they wouldn’t be opening up her whole abdomen and leaving a big scar.
Since having the procedure, Kristen has had two six-month follow-up exams with good results and will continue to be monitored for five years. She appreciates her experience with UPMC Susquehanna noting that her caregivers were extremely warm, understanding and truly cared for her.
“Dr. Alligood was phenomenal. She lowered my anxiety and made me feel comfortable with the situation,” says Kristen. “I knew we came up with the best solution for me and my family.”
Because Kristen’s cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes, she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation treatments, which are typically required for more advanced cases. Dr. Alligood credits Kristen with giving herself the advantage by staying current with scheduled screenings.
“The Pap test takes just seconds and helps us detect a form of cancer that doesn’t provide clear symptoms in its first stages. An earlier diagnosis can save you from several treatments and the side effects that can come with them,” says Dr. Alligood.