The five-year mark of being cancer-free is when you’re considered a survivor.
In her three years with St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way, Dr. Michelle Haslinger, a breast surgery oncologist, has had the opportunity to tell patients “we’ve cured you of your cancer.”
“It’s just the smiles and the tears — the happy tears — and the relief,” she said. “It just really makes you feel like you have a purpose, and that makes me feel good about what I do and how I spend my days during my life.”
Dr. Haslinger is a general surgeon who specializes in breast cancer surgery at St. Francis, and a national speaker for Myriad Genetics, a molecular diagnostic company. She helps women navigate through their breast cancer journey by educating women about their diagnosis and discussing family history, to surgical management and collaborating with other doctors to create optimal plans for each patient.
The genetic research tests for 35 genes related to multiple kinds of cancers, including several related to pancreatic, colon, ovarian and melanoma cancers. The results of a patient’s genetic testing can sometimes alter the course of the surgical management, she said.
Most times, patients have already been told they have cancer by their primary care physician. In rare instances, Haslinger is the one to share the diagnosis news with her patient, “which can be tough,” she said.
Haslinger said her goal with new patients is to provide enough information for them to understand the biology of their tumor, including size, location and spread, “then I talk about how we are a multidisciplinary breast center here at St. Francis that involves multiple doctors and I’m just one piece of the pie in taking care of this patient.”
Looking back on her career, the relationships between Haslinger and her patients have brought fond memories. Such as a patient who brings homemade Filipino food for Haslinger and her significant other each visit, and always remembers to bring a cake for Haslinger’s birthday.
Haslinger has seen her patients recognized at Seattle Mariners games throwing the first pitch, and has accompanied two patients, a mother and daughter who were both undergoing chemotherapy treatment to a Seattle Seahawks practice and Sunday game.
Haslinger follows each patient every six months for five years until their survivor point.
“It really allows me time to get to know them as people, and also their families … by the time the five years are up, I know them on a personal level including their spouses or family members. Those are the special moments too.”
Hailing from New York, Haslinger completed medical school at the University of Buffalo and did a six-year general surgery residency before deciding to specialize in plastics.
“During that time, I decided that I really wanted to switch my focus and do more disease-based treatment, instead of the reconstructive aspect,” she said. “Although I really loved that part as well, it wasn’t really my passion,”
Dabbling in cancer research during her residency, Haslinger wanted to incorporate the two specialities.
“What I loved about plastics was the breast portion, so combining cancer research, cancer treatment and breast surgery, I thought the best route to go was breast surgery oncology,” she said.
Following a year-long breast surgery fellowship at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., additional breast surgery training and a year off to complete her general surgery boards as well as complete a medical mission in Africa, Haslinger secured her first job in Federal Way at St. Francis.
As a general surgeon, the focus is on fixing and removing, while plastics is the reverse thinking, she said.
“I felt a lot of reward in that,” she said. Despite not having any direct personal ties, there are many people in her life who have been diagnosed with cancer. “I think it was more [about] offering a chance to cure someone of a disease, something that is a lethal disease, and offering them a chance at a cure.”
Because of the advancements in medicine over the past 30 years, most patients who have breast cancer do really well with battling the disease, Haslinger said. Remaining diligent about mammograms and taking care of yourself can ultimately save your life if the cancer is caught early.
The Federal Way community has a vast range of nationalities and for about7 5% of Haslinger’s patients, she needs an interpreter. The age of breast cancer patients ranges from as young as early 20s to women in their 90s, she said.
Because of the unpredictability of the disease, Haslinger urges women to get screened early and often. Screenings and mammograms can decrease mortality rates by over 30% because doctors have the opportunity to get to the cancer before it spreads to any other organ systems or lymph nodes.
Breast cancer screenings, mammograms and imaging are available at all CHI Franciscan hospitals. Haslinger also suggests Federal Way’s Center for Diagnostic Imaging (CDI) breast imaging and Tacoma’s Carol Milgard Breast Center.
While COVID-19 forced restrictions on hospital operations, the breast center reopened at the end of May and is seeing more patients than average for screenings. St. Francis is also taking every precaution during COVID-19, including additional sanitizing, entrance screenings, mask enforcement and more.
For more information on St. Francis Hospital breast center, visit chifranciscan.org.