Dortha Chu, M.D., Ph.D., has a message for women facing breast cancer: You have more control than you might imagine.
“The first thing I want patients to know is that they have options,” she said. “You can take some time to figure out what you want. There are some cancers where you do have to make quick choices, but that’s not breast cancer, and treatment shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.”
Chu helps guide patients through their options as a breast surgeon at City of Hope | Mission Hills, as well as City of Hope’s community practice site in Santa Clarita. Part of a team of experts that provides an extensive range of services for breast and other cancers, she works to ensure that local women receive the top-quality oncology care that comes with designation by the National Cancer Institute as one of only 51 comprehensive cancer centers.
“We bring a state-of-the-art approach, with the most current standards of care,” she said. “Whether we’re on campus or at one of our local clinics, we offer the same level of service and expertise.”
After all, being treated in their own communities is an advantage for patients in and of itself.
“The majority of patients would prefer to be close to home when they’re being treated, especially for recovery,” said Chu, an assistant clinical professor of breast surgery. “We hope to keep patients at home so they’re more comfortable and they have access to their own social support network.”
Where Innovation Meets Teamwork
Breast cancer treatment often integrates surgery, medical oncology and radiation therapy, all specialties represented at City of Hope | Mission Hills, with seamless collaboration.
“We all work together very closely,” Chu said. “It gives patients that unique ability to have a coordinated effort.”
Crucially, each element of treatment incorporates the latest science and the most current techniques shown to benefit patients.
For medical oncology, patients at City of Hope | Mission Hills have access to an array of clinical trials offering promising, leading-edge therapies. Treatment plans are informed by genetic testing, taking advantage of the explosion in knowledge about the genetics of cancer.
“My medical oncology colleagues can really tailor cancer treatments to patients based on their own genetics, as well as the genetics of their cancer,” Chu said.
Meanwhile, radiation oncologists deliver accelerated radiation, a method in which intense doses target the site of the tumor, but nearby tissue and organs are spared. This tends to minimize side effects and sometimes even shortens the course of treatment.
“It’s a very precise calculation,” Chu said. “They deliver radiation in a more concentrated fashion to where it’s needed and less where it’s not.”
Chu’s own surgical strategies often combine the goal of removing cancer with cosmetic considerations. In excising a lump, she may borrow techniques from plastic surgery during the same procedure, an approach called oncoplastics. The idea is to preserve shape, size and symmetry with an untreated breast as much as possible.
“We’re always going to focus on fixing the main problem — the cancer — but we come up with solutions that give the patients something to live with and something to live for,” Chu said. “For better or worse, so much of a how a woman feels about herself is connected to her breasts. The more we’re able to help patients survive cancer, the more we work to ensure that they have the best quality of survival.”
Commitment to Compassion
Attention to patients’ quality of life is one expression of City of Hope | Mission Hills’ treatment philosophy. The oncology team is devoted to delivering City of Hope’s signature compassionate care — in line with the organization’s decades-old credo, “There is no profit in curing the body if, in the process, we destroy the soul.”
It starts from the moment that a patient enters the clinic.
“We see the patient as an individual,” Chu said. “When they come in the door, they’re not just a number. They’re not even just a name. To us, they’re a whole person with their own unique needs and priorities.”
Those needs and priorities at times involve working with providers outside of City of Hope. Chu notes that the community practice site has built strong ties with Providence Holy Cross Medical Center and numerous physicians in the community.
“We’re a hub, but we are not exclusive,” she said. “We work with everyone you want us to work with. We all have the same basic goal, which is to do the best that we can for our patients.”
Indeed, Chu acts as an advocate for her patients. With the diverse local community she serves, she’s particularly concerned about language as a barrier. City of Hope | Mission Hills is able to connect with medical translators over the phone, but for Chu, that’s not the whole solution.
“The hard part about language is not just understanding the word, but the nuance of it,” she said. “I look for ways to go beyond the jargon and convey the information in a way that’s as understandable as possible.”
No matter what language a patient speaks, Chu and her colleagues want patients to clearly understand their disease, as well as the options to fight it. From there, it’s essential that patients have the final say about their treatment plans.
“There are guidelines and a framework, but breast cancer treatment should be individualized,” Chu said. “Ultimately, it’s your choice, not your cousin’s, not your mom’s, not even what I would do if I were you. With breast cancer, it can feel like everything in your life is out of your control. I want to give you back that control.”
City of Hope | Mission Hills is located at 15031 Rinaldi St. in Mission Hills. Call 818-660-4700 for more information.