When something felt "just not right," Shelley Barnes consulted her best friend, then went to the doctor. It was a Monday. Three days later, on a Thursday, she had surgery for Stage 2 cancer in her right breast. That was in 2008, when Barnes was 25
"It all happened really fast," she says. "It didn't really sink in." She had no family history or other risk factors for breast cancer and was not in the habit of conducting self-exams.
Tall, willowy and composed, Shelley Barnes tells her story with verve and humor. "It has changed me. I'm an advocate now," says the 28-year-old Washington, D.C., systems analyst. Her luminous skin and radiant smile belie recently finished aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments following a second diagnosis of breast cancer in 2010. That cancer was detected in its early stages by a breast-specific gamma imaging, or BSGI, test.
Last week, Barnes addressed a group of more than a dozen employees of Dilon Technologies in Newport News, putting a human face on the work of the high-tech company. Dilon makes the gamma ray camera, the Dilon 6800, which picked up on the cancer in her left breast when other diagnostic methods missed it.
The camera, developed by a team at the Jefferson Lab and licensed to Dilon, is used as a back-up to other breast-imaging techniques. Company president and CEO Robert "Bob" Moussa reminded the gathering that whatever their day-to-day jobs entailed — sales, marketing, accounting — Barnes and women like her are the rationale for their efforts. "Ultimately," he says, "we help save lives."
It was serendipity, Barnes told the group, that after her initial diagnosis she received treatment at George Washington Medical Center, one of the only ones in her area with a Dilon camera. Worldwide, the company has sold 175 of the machines, which cost around $300,000; locally both Sentara and Riverside health systems use the enhanced technology.
When she returned for her check-up after a lumpectomy in her right breast, Barnes' physician ordered the gamma imaging test in addition to a mammogram. The test, which is particularly effective with dense breasts and scar tissue, monitors biological activity as compared to a mammogram's X-ray function. It duly picked up early-stage cancer in her left breast that the mammogram missed and that could not be felt manually.
"If I hadn't been at George Washington, who knows? I could have gone another year with it growing," says Barnes, who has had a BSGI test in each of the past three years. The test involves less compression than a mammogram, she says, and though it takes longer — from 30 to 60 minutes — it's more comfortable as the patient sits rather than stands. The injection of a radiopharmaceutical makes it more expensive than mammography, which continues to be the accepted baseline test.
"I didn't even know about this machine," she says. "Now I tell people about this all the time." Barnes also had an opportunity to spread the word in an appearance on the "Dr. Oz" show that aired this May when the popular TV doctor highlighted new technologies being used for breast cancer diagnosis. That, in turn, led to her meeting Dilon representatives and her invitation to address the company at its quarterly meeting.
For audience member and engineer Brian Cross, one of the developers of the camera, the theme of serendipity hit home. He can pinpoint the moment that changed the course of his life, when as a high-schooler browsing the shelves in a Chicago library, he selected a book on sailing. This led to a passion for sailboat-racing, which in turn brought him into contact with a group of engineers building medical instrumentation.
This led him to the Jefferson Lab where his team worked on several prototypes for gamma imaging machines applicable to breast cancer. "Our first device was crude and ugly. We had to make something that didn't frighten people or look like Frankenstein," he says. "We also had to build a tool that's easy to use and that doesn't take an army of technicians to maintain. You just hit the 'on' switch and it turns on." From there the technology was licensed to Dilon, which now markets the camera in two sizes.
"It has a 98 percent predictive value. It changes treatment. It gives peace of mind," concluded Moussa, company president, as Barnes nodded in agreement.
The Dilon camera
• detects sub-centimeter lesions
• aids in differentiating benign from malignant tissue
• reveals lesions independent of tissue density
• allows correlation with all mammographic views
The camera is particularly effective for young women, women with dense breasts, and those with scar tissue or implants. It is used as an adjunct to other imaging methods; its results are immediately available.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun