October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This recognition dates to 1985, when the American Cancer Society sought to raise awareness for breast cancer screenings and mammograms. As a result, the breast cancer death rate has been decreasing steadily since 1989, for an overall decline of 43% through 2020. However, that decline has slowed in recent years. To understand why, and discuss the significance of breast cancer awareness month, ACCCBuzz spoke with Marleen Meyers, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and breast medical oncologist at NYU Langone Hospital – Perlmutter Cancer Center. She is also the founding director of the center's Cancer Survivorship Program.
ACCCBuzz: What does breast cancer awareness month mean to you?
Dr. Meyers: It is an opportunity to recognize the field I have dedicated my professional life to. More importantly, because of the word “AWARENESS”, I think the key is to remind people that breast cancer is out there and that they should be screened for it. It also provides a sense of camaraderie and community for patients experiencing breast cancer, their loved ones, as well as their physicians and caretakers. It is really an opportunity to rejoice in the progress we have made.
ACCCBuzz: What has slowed the recent decline in the breast cancer death rate?
Dr. Meyers: The pandemic has a lot to do with it. We know that during the pandemic, a lot of women stopped getting screened as they feared COVID-19. In addition, the statistics that we keep now are better than even a few years ago. Further, there may also be some degree of confusion among the public, as we have so many organizations that give recommendations for screening, and those recommendations differ. I think that has left people confused. If a patient has a primary care physician or people they can trust, they can clarify those answers, but for patients who don’t, they are getting confusing messaging about screening.
ACCCBuzz: How important is conducting outreach in underserved communities for the detection of breast cancer incidence?
Dr. Meyers: It is so important. We know that screening for breast cancer has significantly decreased the death rate, as has good treatment. So, the first conduit to that is to get people in these communities screened and get them to the doctor. Think of the social situations of people in underserved communities: they are working hard, they may have families at home, and may not have established care with a doctor who is managing their screening. Thus, getting to a mammogram may be quite difficult. Many places are open during the week, and many people can’t get there during the week, so having mobile units and places that offer weekend screenings is key; as is letting people know that these places exist.
ACCCBuzz: There are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. As the founding director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at NYU Langone Hospital – Perlmutter Cancer Center, what benefits do survivorship programs offer these individuals?
Dr. Meyers: When I first started out in oncology, we never really thought about survivorship programs—if a patient survived, that was enough. However, patients were left with a number of side effects. They would be infertile, their hair would not grow back properly, they were chronically fatigued, and they were depressed. But the whole world thought they should be back to normal by now, so they often faced this dichotomy between their doctors and everyone telling them—you’re cured—you’re back to normal—but they felt terrible. As we made more strides in cancer care and people came to live longer, I came to realize that the cancer experience never ends—your treatment may end—but the experience does not end. Around 2013, there was more acknowledgement on this from various groups like the Institute of Medicine and we started to appreciate these nuances more. This led to the founding of the survivorship program here. When patients with breast cancer conclude their treatment, they may have difficulties with their body image, and they may have neuropathy among other long-term side effects. In the past, that was overlooked, but now we try to be very proactive in terms of health changes not just to mitigate side effects of treatment, but also to try to optimize a person’s health and prevent other diseases as well.
ACCCBuzz: A school trip to NYU Langone Medical Center as a 14-year-old ultimately inspired your career in medical oncology. As the oncology workforce faces a shortage in providers, how can healthcare organizations inspire the next generation of oncology workers?
Dr. Meyers: When I walked into NYU as a 14-year-old, I was smitten, I cannot describe it any other way. I knew this was where I wanted to be, and where I had to be. I can also say that when I started my oncology training, it was not very exciting. That has changed so much, as it is such an exciting field now. When I talk to students and fellows, I tell them to focus on the tremendous advances within the field and the impact they can make in the lives of their patients. The past 10 years has been incredibly remarkable for breast cancer. I think the fellows who are training now are going to see so much progress, and perhaps even a cure for certain cancers. You also don’t have to be a doctor—you can be anything in the medical field. I would strongly encourage communities to expose children to the beauty of cancer care and what it can be. With the right exposure, there is something for everyone within the field of cancer care.
For more information on the resources ACCC has created to support patients with breast cancer and their providers, visit our website.
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