It was a week before Christmas when Esther Toso officially heard the news that would change her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 300,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2023. About 43,000 will die from the illness.
In smaller communities, like Central Oregon, resources are often slim to those suffering from medical challenges. Many times, patients are forced to drive to Portland or Seattle to get adequate care. St. Charles is working to change that by bringing more resources to the High Desert.
“If anybody called me today and said, ‘I’m going through … I have breast cancer,’ I will have coffee with you,” Esther said over an afternoon cup of coffee.
Esther and her family were, as she says, “nomads” leading up to her diagnosis. She, her husband and their son, were traveling the world. She happened to be in Sisters for a multi-week stretch around Thanksgiving when she first discovered the lump.
She’d been getting annual mammograms and, prior to this, nothing had popped up as a concern.
“Totally blindsided me,” Esther said. “My health history is my family with diabetes or strokes or all these things. I never thought cancer was in my story.”
Her cancer story is still being written, with the plot line subject to changes. When she learned of the cancer, her family decided to stay in Central Oregon and call Bend home.
“I love the energy of Central Oregon and I wanted to be here for my treatment,” Esther said. She and her husband got married in Sunriver, so the area holds a special place in their life.
One of the biggest surprises in her story was when she was told she’d need a single mastectomy.
“Originally, it was only supposed to be a lumpectomy,” Esther said. “Then they found more pieces of the cancer in my breast from an MRI.”
Dr. Caitlyn Truong was the one who took the cancer out. She’s the first fellowship-trained breast surgeon St. Charles has ever had. The qualification means she spent an extra year learning at Stanford, following her board certification. There she was, “surrounded by world experts, innovation, research.”
Acquiring a surgeon with this status is one way the only hospital in town is expanding breast cancer care.
“Not only did I rotate through the surgical specialties, but I spent time on medical oncology, radiation oncology. We spent time looking under microscopes with the pathologists,” Dr. Truong explained. “So, you get, kind of, the whole picture of what a breast cancer patient goes through during her treatment.”
Dr. Truong moved to Bend from Denver in November. Esther was one of her first patients on the High Desert. She says she hasn’t seen a huge difference in care between the big city and smaller town.
She calls St. Charles’ approach to the disease “comprehensive,” touting the medical center’s high-risk program which aims to provide greater care to those with a greater risk of getting the cancer. The goal is to “catch it when they are early stage one rather than a higher advanced stage.”
Another point of pride for Dr. Truong is one of the hospital’s latest job posting. St. Charles is now looking for its own reconstructive surgeon. Reconstructive surgery is an essential part of breast cancer care.
“We only really see that at academic centers or very large community centers, to be able to post a position for our own reconstructive surgeon,” Dr. Troung explained.
This would’ve been a huge help to Esther.
“There was no surgeon in town that would do it at that time. And I was told I might have to drive over the pass,” Esther explained.
Due to an insurance issue with the reconstructive surgery, she was faced with a choice: Wait for a local surgeon to get covered by her plan, postponing her surgery, or travel across the Cascades for her mastectomy, reconstruction and follow ups.
“Just to think of having to possibly be in a hotel to try to heal or drive over the past and the pain that you’re in. It’s just ridiculous,” Esther said.
She decided to wait for Plastic Surgeon Dr. Emily Borsting to get covered by her insurance plan. The decision pushed back her surgery by two months.
Now, she’s waiting for her next scan to check if all the cancer’s been removed. Then she can proceed with another part of her reconstruction. Does she feel uneasy being in that situation right now?
“When you have the cancer diagnosis, no matter what your journey’s been, it’s always going to be there. It can come back. So, yeah, the unknown is hard,” Esther admitted.
While you can’t run from a cancer diagnosis, you can run to help others forced to join what Esther calls a “sisterhood.”
On Sunday, survivors and supporters will run the Heaven Can Wait 5K benefitting Sara’s Project. The local organization helps those in the breast cancer battles, like Esther.
“When I first had my first appointment with Dr. Truong first, she spent an hour and a half with me,” Esther explained. “Everybody cared. They look at you – they treat you as a human being and they take the time to answer all your questions.”
That caring included a care package, courtesy of Sara’s Project.
“The goodie bag will have fuzzy socks, chapstick and notebooks,” Dr. Truong explained. “It just seems like such a small token, but it just shows the patients that there are people out there that knows what you’re going through, knows that it’s a struggle and wants to give you something to help you get through.”
That’s exactly how Esther felt when she got that package.
“It really made all the difference to my perspective on it’s gonna be OK,” Esther said.
Esther has plans to travel again in the coming year, once this chapter of her life wraps up. She has plans to go to Germany, where she was born, and Greece.
Her outlook on life has changed since she first heard those life-changing words less than a year ago.
“I think that anybody that has been confronted with mortality, looks at life a little bit differently,” Esther said. “You appreciate every breath and every moment.”
A part of this new outlook includes running, something she didn’t used to do. She hopes to be at the Heaven Can Wait 5K on Sunday.
Dr. Borstein is a sponsor of the race. Dr. Truong is the keynote speaker. Each of those women, a huge part of her journey and many others along the High Desert.
Esther knows she battled breast cancer in a time St. Charles was growing its care, but she says knowing the growth in the works. The hiring of a reconstructive surgeon and the expansion of a cancer center in Redmond gives her hope for future breast cancer patients in Central Oregon.
If you’d like to attend the Heaven Can Wait 5K, you can sign up online through Saturday or in-person on Sunday. Registration opens at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. The race kicks off at 10:30 a.m. It’s being held at Redmond High School.