Medtronic executive turns breast cancer diagnosis into a mission to improve outcomes for others.
Countless breast cancer patients may someday benefit because of Suzanne Foster’s battle with the disease. She clearly remembers her reaction to the diagnosis.
“The first thought is ‘why me,’” she said. “I exercise and take care of myself. Why would something like this happen?”
During the course of her treatment, Foster found her reason ‘why.’
“I stopped searching for ‘why me’ and I started to realize it had to be me, because there’s some change that needs to happen,” Foster said.
Now fully recovered from breast cancer surgery, Foster says her journey uncovered something surprising -- a significant need for surgical tools designed specifically for breast cancer procedures.
“It was a huge surprise. Prior to going through this I thought that breast cancer was very well-served from a patient perspective. But when you go through it personally, you realize the treatment is just not up to the standard of other levels of surgery,” she said.
Foster, 45, is uniquely qualified to do something about that.
As Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Energy business unit at Medtronic, she leads an organization that makes precision products to help surgeons perform hip and knee replacements, spine surgery, pacemaker generator and lead replacements, ear-nose-and-throat procedures, and certain cancer surgeries.
And, now with even greater focus, breast cancer.
Foster is turning a lot of the attention and resources of her team toward creating innovative new surgical tools for breast cancer surgery – the gap she discovered as a breast cancer patient.
The business studied each step in how breast cancer patients receive treatment. ”What we found was alarming,” said Adam King, Advanced Energy’s Senior Director of Marketing. “Infection rates of 18 percent, repeat surgery rates of more than 20 percent, surgical staging errors of 20 to 25 percent. We want to radically improve the path that patients have to follow to be successfully treated for breast cancer.”
The effort is already well underway.
In August, Medtronic acquired a company called Intact Medical Corporation. Intact developed a biopsy technology that is able to remove an entire breast lesion for evaluation, avoiding a second surgical procedure for patients if the lesion proves to be benign.
Medtronic is also partnering with leading breast cancer surgeons to identify new and innovative surgical tools and techniques that will make surgery easier for doctors and better for patients. Forty percent of the research and development team at the Advanced Energy headquarters in Portsmouth, N.H. is now working to identify and design the next-generation tools that meet those needs.
“As engineers, we all work here to make medical devices that help people,” said Mark Wladkowski, Senior Director of Research and Development. “We’re going after a truly unmet need and the opportunity to improve the patient experience is huge. It’s very exciting to be part of it.”
Medtronic device already making a difference
One surgeon advising Medtronic is Dr. Beth DuPree of Holy Redeemer Hospital in Philadelphia. (Dr. DuPree has a consulting relationship with Medtronic). She is among the leading experts in the United States on a procedure known as a nipple sparing mastectomy, where surgeons remove the underlying breast tissue but spare the nipple and the outer skin. The breast is then reconstructed with implants. It’s a relatively new procedure that is far less invasive and disfiguring than traditional mastectomy, which removes the breast entirely.
It’s also the surgery Dr. DuPree performed on Suzanne Foster.
“It’s a very technically challenging procedure that requires meticulous attention to the details,” DuPree said. “And it also requires some advanced technology to be able to perform.”
DuPree found that a Medtronic dissection device called the Plasmablade™ worked extremely well in nipple sparing mastectomy cases.
“The very first time that I used it on a nipple sparing mastectomy, I told my OR director that I could never do this operation again without this device. It was one of those things that I knew was going to enhance my ability to provide my patients the best care possible,” she said.
The challenge for the Advanced Energy business will be to identify and develop other innovative products that further improve the surgical process for doctors and elevate the quality of care for patients.
Eventually, Foster hopes, Medtronic can provide tools across the entire care continuum, from first diagnosis through surgery and post-surgery follow-up.
“Medtronic is committed to finding therapies that improve patient outcomes,” Foster said. “When you couple the resources of Medtronic with our Mission and our patient focus, that’s how we make a difference in the breast cancer space. That’s what I’m interested in building.”
Foster’s last breast cancer surgery was in September of 2015; she completed her last radiation treatment in December of 2015. Today she says she feels better than ever. And she no longer asks ‘why me.’
“It’s a perfect irony of circumstances,” Foster said. “It’s allowed me to see the world from the patient perspective. And having the privilege of the position I have at Medtronic allows me to make a difference and use what I’ve learned to help people.”
No one is better equipped for the challenge.
The therapy discussed in this story is not for everyone. Please consult your physician. A prescription is required.
The PEAK Surgery System is indicated for cutting and coagulation of soft tissue during General, Plastic and Reconstructive (including but not limited to skin incisions and development of skin flaps), ENT, Gynecologic, Orthopaedic, Arthroscopic, Spinal and Neurological procedures.
The PEAK PlasmaBlade should not be used on small appendages or body parts, as in circumcision.
To learn more about the PlasmaBlade™ and the risks associated with use of this device, click here.
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