Breast Cancer Awareness Month officially begins today. Each year, this disease becomes closer and closer to me…more and more friends are diagnosed, all stages represented. But, a few months ago it entered my family when my adult niece received her call. She and her identical twin own very special places in my heart. Suddenly, the disease was on my territory.
So, I am honored to join with Saint Agnes Hospital as it launches it’s “One Journey, Many Paths” Campaign. Their desire is to make women more aware of the need to take care of ourselves, perform self exams regularly, and stay current with mammograms.
I was allowed to interview Dr. Diana Griffiths, Medical Director of Saint Agnes’ COMPREHENSIVE BREAST CENTER. She brings us up to date.
Here is how our discussion went:
1. Please tell us about you, Dr. Griffiths, to help us get to know you better…
I am currently living in Baltimore and have been practicing at Saint Agnes Hospital since 1978, when I launched the hospital’s Cancer Institute. I am now the Medical Director of the hospital’s Comprehensive Breast Center and have been dedicated to working exclusively with breast cancer for about 15 years. I have a strong family history with breast cancer — my mother as well as two of her sisters were all diagnosed with the disease, and I lost my grandmother to breast cancer — and I have developed a passion to raise awareness about breast cancer, educate women and their families about the seriousness of the disease and successfully treat women who have been diagnosed.
2. There seem to be many women deciding to get mastectomies (even with Stage 1). Do you recommend that? What are the best ways to make those decisions?
It really depends on the patient. At Saint Agnes, we employ a multidisciplinary team approach to treatment, in which we pull together a team of doctors from a variety of specialties who, together, develop the best personal treatment plan for each patient. With that said, it is true that many women do come into the Center requesting a mastectomy (full removal of the cancerous breast), because they believe that a more aggressive treatment option will increase their survival rate. But research has shown that this isn’t true. For women who could be treated with either a mastectomy or lumpectomy and radiation, the mastectomy is equivalent to a lumpectomy and radiation and does not necessarily increase survival rates. 60-70% of patients can be appropriately treated with a lumpectomy and radiation, so we try to guide women toward a lumpectomy because we feel that it is a better option in terms of quality of life and minimizes risk of “over treatment.” But ultimately, the decision has to be made by the patient.
There are medical reasons that make the mastectomy an appropriate or even necessary, choice for some patients. Reasons include multiple breast cancers in the breast, previous radiation treatment and a relatively big cancer for a small breast. These women are better served having a mastectomy and wearing a prosthesis or having reconstructive surgery, as immediate reconstructive surgery has become more common within the last 30 years.
Double mastectomies have also become more common for women who believe that a bigger surgery will bring better results. However, there is no survival benefit proven from removing both breasts if only diagnosed in one, and no guarantee that breast cancer cannot come back.
The best way to determine whether or not to get a mastectomy or an alternative treatment route is to (1) sit down with your doctor and talk about all of your options. At Saint Agnes we do our best to clearly explain a lumpectomy, a mastectomy and the various forms of chemotherapy and radiation treatment and what the expected outcomes can be of each so that our patients are making truly educated decisions; (2) go home and think about it. While it is natural to want to come up with a treatment plan right away, it is important not to make a hasty decision based purely on emotions, as this is an incredibly serious decision that will have a lifelong impact.
3. Tell us a little bit about advancements in treatments. Are numbers improving of lives saved?
There has been an explosion of research completed in terms of basic biology and the biology of breast cancer. This has allowed us to develop targeted drugs through our consistent participation in clinical trials. This includes Tamoxifen, HER2 tumor marker tests, hormone/ endocrine-based treatments and new drug development that have influenced how effectively we treat patients. These advancements have greatly reduced the development of metastatic disease.
For example, Saint Agnes began using Herceptin and Pertuzumab along with chemotherapy, when the drugs were first approved by the FDA, to treat women with metastatic disease and more recently for women who qualify for Neoadjuvant Therapy. We provide Neoadjuvant Therapy to select patients when appropriate, which deviates from the standard treatment path and actually provides chemo before surgery. This method is used when the cancer is relatively large and can be shrunk prior to surgery, which also gives the patient the option of a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy. A normal post-surgery Complete Pathological Response Rate is around 33% – with this new approach, it’s over 60%. This also translates to better survival.
There are also new radiation technologies, such as AccuBoost, that we use at Saint Agnes. AccuBoost is a safer radiation treatment option in that it better targets the cancerous tissue and therefore minimizes radiation to healthy tissue in or near the breast and major organs such as the heart and lungs.
4. What is your greatest area of concern for women and breast cancer?
My greatest concern is for the women who ignore their cancer and don’t come in early for treatment, as breast cancer is highly treatable for the vast majority of women. Early detection is a woman’s best chance for survival. According to the American Cancer Society, only 67% of American women age 40+ are regularly getting mammograms. That’s an alarming statistic, considering the fact that 79% of new cases of breast cancer occurred in women age 50+.
5. What preventions do you think are the most important?
There are a number of ways women can decrease their chances of getting breast cancer. We emphasize the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. This includes avoiding unnecessary hormone treatments, maintaining a healthy body weight, regular exercise, moderate alcohol intake, and a plant-based diet. We recommend monthly breast self-exams for women age 20+, and mammograms according to standard guidelines. These are:
Age 20 to 34
Physical examination of the breast by a trained professional every 3 years
Age 35 to 39
Physical examination of the breast by a trained professional every 3 years
Baseline mammogram for reference
Physical examination of the breast by a trained professional yearly
I love to meet amazing women like Diana Griffiths, making a difference in the world and saving lives. Now, you can make a difference with your own family… or another.
SAINT AGNES HOSPITAL would like to give one of you a VITAMIX BLENDER ($450 value) to promote healthy eating. If you already have one, why don’t you enter and gift it to someone you know who needs to make healthier lifestyle choices. These are amazing blenders and there are so many things from smoothies to desserts which can be done with them. Who would you like to bless with a better health option? If it is your family…that is great.
Use It or Gift It!
All you have to do is watch a short video, then for more entries leave a comment below and tell us if it is for your family or a friend; follow Saint Agnes on Facebook and on Twitter (for extras, not required to win). The contest runs through October 15!