In the battle against breast cancer, many women turn to mastectomy, or breast removal. While a proven method of survival, for many women this drastic body reshaping serves as a constant reminder of the disease, one that can last long after the cancer is gone.
Jennifer Simmons, a breast surgeon at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton is offering women the chance to fight breast cancer effectively while preserving the body for a better post-operation life. Using an implant known as BioZorb, Simmons is giving her patients a chance to be more of themselves.
“I’m always thinking about what they’re going to look like afterwards,” said Simmons, who is Jewish. “Yes, it’s important to get the cancer out, but if I take the cancer out and leave them deformed, have I really helped them?”
Simmons’ desire to help breast cancer patients comes from first-hand experience. She knew the toll breast cancer could take on individuals and families at a very early age. Her cousin, singer-songwriter Linda Creed, was diagnosed in 1975 at 26 and died 11 years later.
“I’ve always been one of those people that wanted to make a difference, wanted to make a contribution, and so, when I became an adult, I decided that surgery was going to be my contribution,” said Simmons.
As a surgeon, Simmons’ path has been anything but traditional. She was the first breast fellow in Philadelphia, training with mentors in different disciplines, including surgeon Gordon Schwartz at Jefferson University Hospital, radiation oncologist Lydia Komarnicky at Hahnemann University Hospital, and reconstructive surgeon Louis Bucky at Pennsylvania Hospital. It was perfect for Simmons’ unique interest in breast conservation and oncoplastics, a combination of oncology and reconstructive surgery.
In 2012, Simmons was recruited to Einstein, where she has worked ever since. As chief of breast surgery, Simmons is pushing breast cancer care into the future, primarily with an implant called BioZorb.
Shaped like a three-dimensional spiral with three titanium clips, the BioZorb is a revolutionary new partial breast implant. It is surgically implanted where a tumor has been removed during a lumpectomy. Normally the human body wants to fill that space with fluid, creating something called a seroma cavity. Instead, the BioZorb fills that space and prevents breast tissue from sinking in, preserving the breast’s appearance.
By conserving healthy breast tissue, Simmons is offering her patients, especially those with large tumors, an alternative to a mastectomy that helps them long after the operation.
“That way they don’t have to lose their breasts because when you do a mastectomy on someone, when they lose their breasts, there will really never come another day for them where they won’t be defined by their disease,” Simmons said.
The BioZorb mitigates scarring as well, but the device has more than cosmetic benefits. While the body absorbs the implant within two years, a set of titanium clips remain and help doctors in treating the cancer more precisely.
“It’s a fixed size, so when the radiation doctors go to treat, the treatment is more specific because that device was in the exact place the tumor was,” Simmons said. “Their dosage also gets decreased because [radiologists] are focusing on that area and not a broader area.”
The clips even help radiologists monitor the area in future mammograms.
For Carolyn Kelly, a patient of Simmons’ who was fearfully considering a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2017, the BioZorb made sense.
“After [Simmons] told me that it leaves the markers behind and that it takes 12 months to get absorbed into the body and then it disappears, I was fine,” Kelly said. “It all made sense.”
A little more than a year later, Kelly is living cancer free. Metal detectors don’t even pick up the titanium clips. Other than the cost — $1,000 per implant — the only problem she has is sometimes forgetting she ever had an implant.
“I would say I pretty much forgot it was there,” Kelly said. “In fact, in my last mammogram I remember asking, ‘Can you show me where it was?’ and basically I still couldn’t see it.”
However, Simmons believes there’s still room to improve. Most patients don’t have access to this option, largely because most surgeons don’t offer it. Simmons isn’t sure why she’s one of only five surgeons in Pennsylvania who uses the BioZorb. Not every doctor is as skilled or comfortable with oncoplastics as Simmons, but moving forward she believes breast surgeons could afford to travel the less traditional path.
“I would love to see the adoption of a larger skillset in my colleagues so that this technology is available to everyone,” Simmons said.
Cody Mello-Klein is a freelance writer.