Court, classroom, and chemotherapy; Dr. Cassano-Bailey scores straight A’s in paving path for females
Woman. Interventional radiologist. You rarely heard those terms together in Manitoba until Dr. Alessandra Cassano-Bailey entered the field of interventional radiology in 2012.
Before Dr. Cassano-Bailey was a doctor, she was Miss Cassano, physics and chemistry teacher at St. John’s High School where she attended as a student not too long before. This position is where she first made room for herself in what was traditionally a male-dominated field. “I took over from my old physics teacher who was retiring and was happy to have a female in that role,” says Dr. Cassano-Bailey.
While Dr. Cassano-Bailey knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor, she awakened a passion for teaching when she tutored her fellow University of Manitoba basketball teammates. Dr. Cassano-Bailey pursued teaching before following her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Even though Dr. Cassano-Bailey has retired from the basketball court and the high school classroom, she has found a field where she can weave in teaching. In her current role as an interventional radiologist at HSC Winnipeg, Dr. Cassano-Bailey mentors resident doctors and teaches her patients about their liver health. “I was able to build one career on top of the other,” notes Dr. Cassano-Bailey.
One of Dr. Cassano-Bailey’s mentorship areas is transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), which is a procedure that blocks the blood supply to a tumour, resulting in the death of cancer cells. In 2013, Dr. Cassano-Bailey was one of a small group of interventional radiologists across Canada to use this innovative technique to treat cancer and slow the growth of a tumour.
“There was a big gap in liver care in Manitoba,” says. Dr. Cassano-Bailey. “Manitoba had the lowest liver disease survival rates in Canada. I am extremely passionate about interventional radiology and wanted our province to progress along with what is being offered in Canada.”
TACE is one of a handful of locally directed treatments offered to patients who do not qualify for curative treatments, such as removing part of the liver. Many patients are in this category, finding that they have liver disease and a tumour that is too large for curative treatment or a liver transplant. For these patients, the median life expectancy was as poor as 11 months. With the introduction of TACE, this has been improved to 18 months and beyond.
In addition to excellent disease control with very little side effects, TACE is also a “bridge therapy” to a curative transplant. On average, patients often wait for a liver transplant for 12 months. TACE helps to keep the disease controlled so that the patient can remain a candidate and eventfully undergo a successful transplant.
“A significant number of people with liver disease qualify for TACE. Those who qualify are individuals who have tumours that are too large for surgery or radio frequency, and a liver transplant isn’t an option,” notes Dr. Cassano-Bailey.
One of the grateful patients that Dr. Cassano-Bailey has treated with TACE is Marie Schnerch. Four years ago, Schnerch learned she had a tumour on her liver. After a general surgeon said he didn’t want to operate on her liver due to fear of it tearing, Schnerch felt discouraged—until Dr. Cassano-Bailey stepped in. “I was blown away by her talent,” says Schnerch. “She came in prior to my surgery and explained everything to me. She said, ‘This is not a cure, but we are going to manage this as best as we can for as long as we can.’”
Dr. Cassano-Bailey administered the TACE procedure on Schnerch twice before handing the third and fourth TACE procedures to her protégé, Dr. Stephanie Dyck.
“I want to pay homage to these women who have given me the gift of life four times. At age 76, every year is a blessing,” says Schnerch.
Woman. Interventional radiologist. Dr. Cassano-Bailey’s list certainly doesn’t end there. Mother. Wife. Mentor. Friend. Animal lover. Saltwater reef enthusiast. Innovator.
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By Natasha Havrilenko