Don’t panic. Take a deep breath and find a specialist who is knowledgeable about the disease and works at a hospital with a full range of treatment options. Don’t rush into a decision either – a study we did at Fox Chase found that survival rates in the U.S. were only slightly lower (3-5%) even when there was a three-month delay in treatment. Do your homework – where you go first for treatment matters.
Question: Some say we haven’t made much progress in the fight against cancer, how do you respond?
I say that’s absolutely untrue. We’ve made great strides in the survivability of cancer, especially breast cancer. Thanks to research, we have better drugs, more focused radiation, more precise imaging and more effective surgical procedures. Most women today survive breast cancer thanks to these advances.
Richard J. Bleicher, MD, FACS
Breast Clinical Program Leader
Fox Chase Cancer Center
Question: Do You have a personal connection to
I was 16 when my cousin, Linda Creed, who was a very successful Philadelphia singer/songwriter, died at the age of 36 from breast cancer. I was enamored with her as a kid, and her death had a huge impact on my family and me. I knew when I went to medical school that I wanted to do something with women’s health.
Question: What advances have you seen in your career?
From a surgical perspective, we now remove less healthy tissue around breast tumors. The mentality used to be ‘bigger is better’ – take out more to be safe. Now the pendulum has swung toward taking less thanks to better surgical techniques and our knowledge about cancer. This is meaningful because most women will survive breast cancer, and the appearance of their breasts afterward is important.
Jennifer Chalfin Simmons, MD, FACS
Chief, Breast Surgery
Director, Breast Health Program
Einstein Medical Center Montgomery
Question: What led you to this field?
My grandmother died of lung cancer when I was seven, so I’ve always wanted to be a doctor and do cancer research. In medical school I fell in love with surgery. It allows me to instantly fix the problem, while results from research take a much longer time. Being a surgeon scientist allows me to have the best of both worlds.
Question: What can women do to lessen their chances of getting breast cancer?
Healthy lifestyles are important – exercise and eating well. We know this from large population studies. People who follow a Mediterranean diet and those who exercise have a lower incidence of cancer. We want to promote a healthy lifestyle in women to improve overall health but also improve breast cancer outcomes.
Julia Tchou, MD, PhD
Section Chief, Breast Surgery
Co-Director, Rena Rowan Breast Center
Abramson Cancer Center
Question: What led you to become involved with genetics?
I did my hematology/oncology fellowship at Lankenau Medical Center when the world of oncology genetics was in its infancy. Main Line Health saw the impact of oncology genetics and had established an oncology genetics research program. The genetic counselor who oversaw the program, and with whom I still work closely, inspired me by sharing her passion.
Question: What gives you hope?
In 2015, we had more new drugs approved for fighting cancer than in any year prior. There are so many drugs and clinical trials in the pipeline right now. Many of these are targeted therapies, meaning they are based on the mutations found within the tumors. It’s exciting to see patients that formerly had no available treatment options now live much longer.
Terri McHugh, DO
Medical Director, Cancer Risk Assessment
& Genetics Program
Main Line Health
Question: What’s the biggest misconception about breast cancer?
I hear women say, ‘My mother didn’t have breast cancer so I’m probably fine.’ In truth, most women who get breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. Another misconception is that surgery will cause the cancer to spread. Sometimes I have to talk women into just getting a biopsy.
Question: What’s one thing you’d like to tell women about breast cancer?
It’s scary, but it’s curable. The majority of women with breast cancer are cured. I’m still seeing women from 20, 25 years ago and they’re still cancer-free. Even if it’s not early stage it’s still treatable and curable. There have been great advances in drugs so now we can treat women we didn’t think were curable before.
Ronit Sugar, MD
Question: What led you to specialize in breast surgery?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a doctor, but when I was 18 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I met her surgeon and my mother thought so highly of her and her team. It hit home for me. You have to sacrifice a lot when you choose medicine as a profession, but I am fortunate to be able to love what I do every day.
Question: Do you personally worry about breast cancer because of your mother?
My mother is the only one in the family who has had breast cancer and she tested negative for the BRCA mutations. It is important to know that breast cancer is a multifactorial disease, which means dependent on a number of factors, with genetics only accounting for 10%. I think every woman worries about breast cancer, but it’s not something that consumes my life. I’m confident in early detection and treatments and I try my best to live a healthy lifestyle with exercise so it’s not something I worry about every day.
Stefania Nolano, DO
Associate Director, Breast Program
Question: How do you put a woman’s mind at ease when you first meet her?
It can be very overwhelming for patients to learn that they have a cancer diagnosis. They are often frightened and anxious to learn about their prognosis, and how they will deal with the side effects of cancer treatments. I spend a lot of time with my patients explaining their treatment options and what to expect with the recommended cancer therapies. I reassure them that we will help them get through treatment, and provide them with access to the supportive services they need. They feel more at ease once they have a treatment plan and know that we are here to help them every step of the way.
Question: We can’t prevent breast cancer yet, but what steps can women take to lower their risk?
There are preventive measures that can be recommended for women at risk for developing breast cancer such as those with a strong family history. But the most important thing for women to do is have their recommended screening tests for breast cancer and other types of cancers like cervical and colon cancer. Some women maybe frightened that if they have a screening test that we’ll find cancer, and as a result they tend to delay having these tests. It’s important to keep in mind that prognosis is much better when a cancer is caught early and in some cases a patient may actually be able to avoid chemotherapy.
Maysa Abu-Khalaf, MD
Director, Breast Medical Oncology Program
Co-Director, Breast Care Center
Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University