When cancer struck, retired teacher Isabelle Grassmann regrouped and started a new Lesson Plan

Forest Grove woman undergoes pioneering treatment and walks in Tuesday's fundraiser
by: photo by Chase Allgood,

For five days this spring, Isabelle Grassmann became very close friends with a little machine she affectionately dubbed 'R2D2.'

In April, the retired Forest Grove schoolteacher became the first patient at the Tuality/Oregon Health and Science University Cancer Center in Hillsboro to receive an emerging form of radiation therapy called MammoSite.

Doctors implanted a catheter into her left breast and attached it to a rubber balloon filled with saline - then connected Grassmann to a radioactive agent that zapped the cancer cells.

'They hooked me up to R2D2 two times a day for five days, and then it was over,' said Grassmann, a petite blonde with smiling eyes who adores her husband, Klaus, their three grown children and four grandchildren.

Grassmann, 63, had no idea that the 'little' breast cancer would turn out to be a look at the future of cancer treatment in the region.

While traditional radiation methods require daily visits to for up to eight weeks, the Cancer Center's MammoSite process reduces that number to two visits a day for just five days for eligible breast cancer patients.

Grassmann received her first clue about the cancer last August when 'something strange' showed up in her regular mammogram screening, which she had at Tuality Healthcare's mobile mammography vehicle during one of its regular trips to Forest Grove.

She underwent additional imaging and follow-up at Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro. After six months, a biopsy confirmed that she had an early stage ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer.

'I was shocked, but I didn't cry,' Grassmann recalled. 'First there's that 'why me?' reaction. Then there's the 'why not me? realization.

'I said I'd fight it.'

Her treatment required a surgical lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy. Her cancer's 'stage zero' diagnosis gave Grassmann every reason to be optimistic.

'My doctors described my situation as 'sassy teenage cancer cells that don't quite have their act together,'' Grassmann noted.

For someone who had learned to expect the unexpected during her 20-year career in the classroom, Grassmann's diagnosis and treatment were life-altering.

She taught kindergarten and fifth-grade at Joseph Gale Elementary School for 14 years and fifth- and sixth-grades at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School for six years. She retired in 2002.

'The whole thing was just odd - it happened so fast,' she said, still trying to process the turmoil of the last few months. 'It was like someone was just spinning me around and hitting me on the head.'

When Grassmann first learned of the cancer and the treatment steps ahead, her doctor suggested that she would be a good candidate for the new 'one-week' radiation therapy at Tuality/OHSU Cancer Center in Hillsboro.

'I was very thankful that the procedure was available so close by,' said Grassmann. 'It was a 20-minute drive.'

As the center's first MammoSite patient, she achieved near-celebrity status as clinical staff gathered to watch the procedure in action.

'The people were so reassuring and had a good sense of humor,' she said, which helped to ease her stress.

Today, Grassmann's cancer looks to be in complete remission, thanks to early detection, the surgery and the MammoSite therapy. Her doctors say no further treatment is necessary.

'I'm feeling good,' she said, adding that she is staying busy working as a substitute teacher, spending time with her grandkids and working in her yard.

'I just feel so lucky,' she added. 'I didn't have to do the chemotherapy and life is back to normal.'

Grassmann credits her family members for their constant support during the ordeal, including her husband, her children and three sisters who frequently called and e-mailed with good thoughts.

'I even heard from my 22-year-old nephew from Australia,' she said.

Nearly five months have passed since her diagnosis, and Grassmann is feeling very thankful. 'It's so much more traumatic for other women who might lose a breast or who lose their hair during therapy,' she said. 'I was just so fortunate.'

Jerry Schumacker works for Tuality Healthcare's community relations department. News-Times Associate Editor Nancy Townsley also contributed to this story.