At the Forefront Live: Breast Cancer Awareness & Research
October 11, 2019
Today we're highlighting the stories of two breast cancer survivors, ABC 7 anchor Roz Varon and Pam Henson, who is with the Sun-Times. She's the media senior VP of sales and marketing. We'll then hear about the advances in breast cancer research from UChicago Medicine cancer and chemotherapy researcher Dr. Eileen Dolan and Dr. Carolyn Bruzdzinski of the American Cancer Society. As always, we'll take your questions and comments as we talk to our guests here on At the Forefront Live. First of all, welcome to the program. Thanks for being here.
And if you can, Pam, we're going to start with you and have each one of you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about why you're here and how you started with your journey through cancer.
Right. Great. I'm Pam Henson. I am the senior VP, as you said, of sales marketing for the Chicago Sun-Times, enjoyed three decades in media all across the country, and started my cancer journey in Minnesota. At the age of 44, I was diagnosed with leukemia, APL leukemia, and immediately did three months of intensive chemotherapy and was declared cancer free after seven years, statistically. And I got to fire my oncologist.
But unfortunately, four months later, I had been getting regular mammograms. And there was early detection of stage 1 breast cancer. So I then went through breast cancer and am a survivor of seven years.
Well, I like how you said that you were getting regular mammograms. And early detection is very, very important in all this.
Very, very important. In fact, they had put me-- because of issues of dense breast tissues and the leukemia incident prior-- that I was every six months going. And first six months, lumpectomy. And then they really were watching it. And in 18 months, I knew and got it stage 1 and had a mastectomy and are living every day as a blessing.
Fantastic. And Roz, I don't know that we really need an introduction for you because people probably will recognize you. But thanks for doing this today. And one of the things that's, I think, very exciting about both of you-- and Roz, you certainly have a very public platform. But the fact that you're out there advocating I think is just so important.
And hats off to you because I think it's a tough story to tell, first of all. But it's an important story to tell. And if you can start us a little bit with your journey as well.
You know, my sister is a two-time breast cancer survivor. And I had been getting mammograms every year because of that. And in 2006, I was on vacation. And I was one month away from my annual mammogram. And I was in the shower, felt this lump under my arm, and knew this was not a good thing.
So I came back from vacation, went to the doctor immediately. They did a mammogram. And they found the tumor in my lymph node, did not see anything in the breast. So we had to do a sonogram, an ultrasound. And there they saw it. It was hiding underneath the nipple. And that's why it didn't show up on the mammogram.
So then we had to do a whole barrage of tests. And we went through bone scans, CAT scans, brain MRIs, and ultimately found that it had traveled to my liver. So I had metastasis to the liver. So my initial diagnosis of breast cancer-- stage 4.
And knowing that I was going to have to take time off of work, I prepared a statement. Because I was so emotional at that time, I really couldn't talk about it on the air. So I prepared a statement. And at the time, Judy Hsu and Hosea Sanders were the anchors. Tracy Butler was there, of course. And they read it. And I remember everybody being so teary eyed. But I was very positive even then about fighting this.
My daughter was only 10 at the time. And the response that I got from viewers, from the public was so strong and so supportive that it really gave me a lot of strength to move forward with this. And I felt I really needed to pay it forward, which is one of the reasons why I am so vocal about this. I'm such an advocate for things like early detection and taking care of yourself.
And that's very evident for both of you by you doing this because we didn't have to convince either one of you here. This was an easy sell from our standpoint to have you come on. And you guys very graciously agreed to do that. But it is a very personal thing. And each person is different. And that's certainly understandable.
But from both your standpoint, it's important to get the word out and let people know. And it was interesting, Roz, because you mentioned that it wasn't initially a mammogram. You discovered this yourself. And again, I think that stresses the importance of self-exams--
--knowing yourself, and being aware of things and then not being afraid to go see the doctor.
And you know, a lot of people will reach out to me. And they'll say, I don't know what to do. I'm afraid. I don't want to tell anybody. I'm a private person.
And I feel that because I'm giving them a platform, people can come to me and reach out to me on social media. I am able to then point them in a different direction or send them to the American Cancer Society or send them to the hospital or wherever they need to go and give them the resources they need. That, to me, is a blessing.
One of the things that we're working on, Pam-- and you're a big part of this-- is our-- I don't know if you'd call it a partnership. There's several groups involved. But it is a partnership with the American Cancer Society, Sun-Times, ABC 7, of course, UChicago Medicine. And it's to get the word out.
And we're also encouraging people to share their stories of cancer survivorship. You can jump on the Facebook page. And some of those stories are very touching. But I think it's-- for one thing, I think it's nice for people to be able to share. But it's also nice for people to be able to read that, hear about other people's struggles. And I think people gain strength from that. I don't know if you feel that same way.
Yeah. I think Roz said it beautifully-- that we've both been given-- yours much larger than mine-- media voices and platforms to do good. And in the 14 years that I've been on the cancer journey, every opportunity-- the amazing opportunity with UC Med and the Sun-Times, turning National Mammography Day, next Friday, October 18, into a pink paper where we're fundraising for cancer research-- that's the end result of what you want to have gone through your own journey with. How do you make it an easier journey for someone else that has to go through it or make it a journey that can not happen?
So I'm intrigued by this pink paper. The whole paper is going to be pink.
The whole paper will be pink. And we will be out hawking it.
I'd like to see that. That's going to be neat.
You're going to be selling newspapers.
So buy a paper.
Yeah, absolutely. It's for a good cause. That's fantastic. So talk to us about-- and Roz, I'm kind of curious to get your thoughts on this. As you went on this cancer journey, I imagine at first it was very scary.
And then how has it changed your life outlook on life? You've got to look at things a little differently now, I would imagine. Or maybe not. You're a positive person. So maybe that's-- you're just always positive.
It's really funny you should say that. People ask me that all the time. Has cancer changed you? And I really have to say, no. It hasn't. There are certain things that I will look at it a little differently. And Pam and I were talking about this-- that every day is a blessing, every single day. But I am a positive person.
And I know that there are studies that have been done about positive attitudes and how that increases and boosts your immune system. And your immune system is what you need to be strong to-- in my case, because I'm stage four-- to keep it from coming back. Because once it's traveled through your body, it could come back any time. So I am a positive person. And that's never going to change.
Pam, has this changed your outlook at all?
I really would 150% agree with Roz. What I found was-- and I'm sure we share this, too. When you're a very strong individual and personality, you have to in the cancer journey-- you have to start letting others do for you.
You have to rely-- every single medical person that you're dealing with-- nurse, doctor, nutritionist, surgeon-- becomes your immediate family. And it's so important that you combine your family, your friends, your faith, and this new family of doctors that are there for you to help you get through this. And very similar to Roz, every day is a blessing. Every single day is a blessing.
That's so true what you're saying, though, because we're so used to taking care of everybody else and doing everything else. And you don't take a minute to step back and take care of you. So you have to let other people in and let other people help. And I strongly, strongly advise people to when they're first diagnosed-- you were asking me, that had to be really scary. That's the scariest thing about this thing.
When you are first told those words, you have cancer, you feel like you've been sucker punched. You can't even catch your breath. So you have to take a step back. You have to come up with a plan. You have to let others help you. Once you get past that, once you have a plan, then you can start moving forward. And you feel like you have control in a situation that really is kind of out of your control.
What a wonderful segue you each have given me. It's like you guys have done this before. But the name of our effort is Together We Answer Cancer. And again, I think this just shows how important it is to have that family, that team, that support group. But have that group of people that is supporting. And that's just going to be critical as you go through the whole process and the journey. And I'm glad you both brought that up. That's fantastic.
So I'm going to ask for advice. So if there are people out here watching this right now-- and I'm sure there are-- that are facing their own challenges with cancer, what advice would you give them? And Pam, let's star with you.
Definitely what I would share is to really, really know your body and get to know anything that seems indifferent or not the normal, to have those checked out. That happened with me. I had a petechiae under the skin bleed. My husband had been a paramedic and said, you're checking that out. And 36 hours later, I was in chemotherapy for acute leukemia.
Same thing with breast cancer. You have to know your body. Amazing story that Roz-- and self-detection is incredibly, incredibly important. And just the attitude. The attitude is everything.
So Roz, what would you tell someone coming to you looking for advice?
Because this happened to me, get a second opinion because the doctors are there to work for you. And if you are not happy with what you're hearing or you're not sure about it, you need to find somebody else. And again, don't have that knee-jerk reaction. I had a knee-jerk reaction. And I went through two rounds of chemo by the time I found the doctor, the oncologist who is right for me.
And she said, well, if you'd come to me first, I would have never put you on that chemo. You would have never lost your hair. You wouldn't have gone through chemo-induced menopause. That was really bad. But I digress. Get a second opinion. It's hugely important.
That's fantastic. So as we move forward with this effort, we're going to have the paper out week from Friday, correct?
Friday, October 18.
So that will be neat. We're doing a lot of activities with ABC 7. And those are so much fun and so exciting so far. And I just want to thank both of you because it's really powerful to have somebody who's been through it, tell their stories, and be advocates for people. And you two certainly are.
It's an honor.
We're going to watch a little video here of one of our cancer survivors. And then we're going to come back with a couple of researchers here in just a moment.
I just randomly had felt some pain and was able to feel something near my chest wall that didn't seem normal. And I didn't automatically assume that it was breast cancer. But I knew it was something that I should get checked out.
My initial thoughts were that I was going to die, that this is something that was just an awful thing that I wouldn't be able to necessarily get through the way that I have because I have friends who have gone through this and have done some research and had treatment here and recommended the University of Chicago.
Dr. Olopade just was a wonderful spirit from our initial meeting throughout treatment. She was able to balance out weighing risks and talking about very serious consequences or serious side effects but also balance that with just a very positive outlook. And it just made me feel still human, not just a clinical relationship.
So I had to really think hard about, what's the best treatment for this young woman who has a lot of life ahead of her and who is also very scared?
What I have to do is to be the bad cop and say, you know what? We need to treat this more aggressively because it has these features that if we don't take care of it we're going to regret it because then it can come back. And then we came to a shared decision. And she was going to get chemotherapy.
We're going to avoid the chemotherapy that could weaken her heart. But then we knew that whatever chemotherapy she got wasn't going to be a cakewalk. She's a high-functioning professional who wanted to be able to go to work. And then she has children.
When I met with Dr. Olopade, she was very hopeful, made me realize that this wasn't going to kill me. This is just a matter of finding the right course of treatment. I think we need to remove the stigma about people getting cancer. More people need to get treated early because fear can make you paralyzed. And too often, people get paralyzed. And they don't get the cancer treated when, in fact, it could be curable.
To really become an advocate for yourself, learn as much as you can. And really feel comfortable with who you're partnering with as your health care partner because you need to really feel comfortable and have a trusting relationship with them. And that helps keep you hopeful and keeps your attitude positive.
And welcome back. We have a couple of researchers joining us for this portion of the program. We want to remind our viewers. If you want to ask a question of one of our experts, just type it in the comments section of the Facebook page. And we'll try to get to as many as possible as we can for the rest of the show.
So joining me is Dr. Eileen Dolan from UChicago Medicine. Thanks for being here. We appreciate it.
And Dr. Carolyn Bruzdzinski from the American Cancer Society. And thank you for being here.
So let's start off with Dr. Dolan. I'm going to start with you and talk about some of the research that's being done and some of the advances in breast cancer and breast cancer research. What are some of the exciting things that are going on?
Well, as you probably are aware, breast cancer deaths have declined over the last several decades. And much of this is due to new treatments for ER-positive metastatic breast cancer. But over the last year, there's been really exciting advances for triple-negative breast cancer. And the reason this is important is because we know that triple-negative breast cancer is very aggressive. It's very hard to treat. And it's more common in African Americans.
So over the past year, there's been FDA approval for immunotherapy, as well as PARP inhibitors. These are being combined with chemotherapy. And so it's a very exciting time for this particular type of cancer.
Dr. Bruzdzinski, I read some statistics at the very start of the show that were, quite frankly, a little startling when you hear them on the surface. We have a large population in the United States. But still, it's very concerning. But those numbers are going down. So that's positive. What would be, in your opinion, some of the things that you could attribute the decrease to?
I think the decrease is due to both the increased screening, people going out and getting screened. Because if we can detect cancer early, then there is a much more positive result, much better outcomes if you can detect the cancer early. And then, of course, as Dr. Dolan mentioned, there has been advancements in treatment. And so we are seeing this steady decline in the mortality rates for breast cancer, so much so that over the last-- between 1989 and 2017, over 376,000 fewer women died of breast cancer.
That's fantastic news. And it's interesting. Our first two guests mentioned that, both the importance of regular screening and the importance of self-exams and knowing your body, which is very critical. So it's good getting the word out. And that's why this is so important. And again, we appreciate you two being on the program to talk a little bit about this.
So let's talk about different populations. You mentioned specific types of breast cancer and one that hits African-American population a little bit harder. What's the thought behind that? I don't know if there are any theories on that either one of you might have. And what kind of research is being done there?
Well, it may be biological or genetic that contributes to these more aggressive cancers, such as triple-negative breast cancer, affecting the African-American population. It's key, really, to close the disparity gap. And part of it is due to the fact that there's more aggressive cancers. But we need to find better treatments for these particular subtypes.
Yes. I think that there are a number of different things contributing to the disparities between the African-American population and the white population. If you really look at mortality rates between those two populations, there's a 40% difference in mortality rates. And if you look at younger women 50 and under, it's even more pronounced. It's about a double of a mortality rate.
And much of it, as Dr. Dolan said, is there are more aggressive cancers. Also more women are diagnosed at an earlier age in African-American population than in the white population. And then we have some structural issues, too. Timing between getting a screening mammogram and then a follow-up mammogram to confirm is longer in the African-American population. And time to treatment is longer.
Those things we can attack. And the American Cancer Society, the University of Chicago, and other partners are really looking at how we can shorten those times to help decrease the disparities with the African-American population and the white population.
And that goes back to some health care disparities just in general that we face. And I know that there is work being done. Here at UChicago Medicine for certain and also the American Cancer Society is helping with that work to try to battle some of that. And it's a tough topic.
We are getting some questions from viewers. So I wanted to make sure we get to a couple of those if we could. And one, a pretty basic one-- I probably should have asked this right off the bat. What does a suspicious lump feel like? How does somebody know if something is out of the ordinary? Either one of you can take that.
I think that through breast self-exams or through mammograms, it's really important to continue to get screening. And anything that feels a little out of the ordinary would be worth checking up on.
You really need to know your breasts. You really need to regularly, at the same time every month, look at your breasts. Make sure that-- look and be familiar with what they look like, what they feel like. It's hard to say, this is exactly how what something would feel like. But you know your own body and what's normal and what is something out of the normal. When it's out of the normal, you need to go to your doctor and have that conversation.
I would say it's probably best just to be careful and err on the side of caution with like this. If you feel any kind of a lump, go see your doctor because that's the best thing to do. A quick visit will put your mind at ease. And if there is something specific or something bigger happening, it's better to find it then.
Let's talk a little bit about-- I'm very curious about your research. And you were talking a little bit before the show. I don't know if you can share some of that with our viewers. But you do some fascinating research, particularly on genetics.
Right. So in my research, we actually identify the contribution of genetics to the side effects of chemotherapy. So we inherit DNA from our mother and father. And that's throughout all the cells in our body. And that really dictates or predicts which patients might be at risk for devastating, severe, long-lasting side effects.
And they include-- peripheral neuropathy might be one, which many patients get. It can be motor or sensory. There's also hearing loss and tinnitus. So in my research, we are looking at younger populations that end up with maybe 50 or 60 years ahead of them which will be living with these devastating side effects. And if you understand the genetics, you can begin to get at new treatments or preventative drugs for these side effects.
So if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, should she be tested genetically to see if she has the likelihood of passing it along to a daughter or relative? Is that a good idea?
Yes. That is definitely-- if they are young at age and they have a first-degree relative with breast cancer, they definitely need to be tested for genetic mutations that may predict for breast cancer incidence.
Dr. Bruzdzinski, could you talk to us just for a moment about the American Cancer Society and the important role that your organization plays with research? Because from a fundraising perspective, that's a big part of what happens here.
Yes. Right now the American Cancer Society is funding 162 different studies across the country in breast cancer, investing a total of about $67 million, some of that right here at the University of Chicago. Really, discovery and advancement in treatment is so very critical in continuing to reduce mortality due to breast cancer.
And so the funds that we raise obviously go towards education, awareness. They go towards working with our partners to increase screening. But so much of it also goes towards research to make certain that we are funding those critical studies that will lead to advances in breast cancer.
And Dr. Dolan, I know you were talking earlier. The American Cancer Society is such a wonderful partner with you and with the University. In fact, some of your research was funded directly.
Right. My very first grant came from the American Cancer Society, so thank you. And that was for a small-- it was a small grant for a very high-risk project. But that led into a very large project that was funded by the National Institute of Health that went for five years. And it really propelled my career. So I appreciate that the American Cancer Society funds--
--risky projects that NIH is more reluctant to fund.
Well, and I want to say, those risky projects-- those are critical because that is where a lot of the-- a lot of the research that's done in some of these risky projects turns out to be very beneficial. And it also leads to some of the other research that's being done.
Right. That's absolutely right.
So that's great. Can you talk about ResearcHERS, that initiative? It's an interesting project. I don't know if either one of you can discuss it.
Go ahead. I know you're an ambassador. I was an ambassador.
I'm part of ResearcHERS. And this empowers women. I notice that they announced the Nobel Prize winners again this year. And out of over 600 Nobel Prize laureates, only 20 are women. I also just read a study where women are less likely to get-- or they get about $40,000 less in their grants than men with all other things being equal.
So it's time to empower women. And I'm part of it to help other women researchers because even if my lab doesn't come up with a cure or come up with major breakthrough, I want to be part of that through funding and being an ambassador.
Yes. I was also an ambassador. Yes. It's a really important, important effort. We really want to encourage and empower young women to really explore research and to go forward and study in sciences and join the research community.
And what's very critical is that those scientists that are out there studying-- that they have the research funds to be able to continue their work. And that's what ResearcHERS does. It raises funds specifically for women doing cancer research.
We're about out of time in the program. But I know I'm going to get in trouble by the people off camera if I don't talk about one thing. And that is Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. I might get in trouble with the people on the cam, too. So we want to talk about that. October 19, right?
So it's coming up. And it's very important. And it's also a fun event.
Yes. It's a great event. It's a really exciting event. We have actually Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events across the country, 200 of them. But here in Chicago, there are seven of them in the community. Go to makingstrideswalk.org. Put in your zip code and your city. And they'll tell you where these walks are.
The October 19 walk, the one that Tim mentions, is the big one in Chicago. It's at Soldier Field. University of Chicago is the presenting sponsor. They're also sponsoring our south side walk. Come out. It's a great event.
We honor survivors. We obviously remember our loved ones lost with breast cancer. We increase awareness. There's music. There's a DJ. It's a good time. And we want to make it the biggest and the best that we've ever had. So October 19 at Soldier Field. Roz Varon and Judy Hsu are the cohosts of the event. Come out. You'll have a great time.
Yeah. It is a wonderful, wonderful event. And we need lots of people there. So please do that. Thanks for being on the program, both of you.
Thank you very much.
It was really wonderful. We are out of time. Please remember to check out our Facebook page for future programs and other healthy living tips. Also, if you want more information about UChicago Medicine, you can take a look at our website at uchicagomedicine.org. And if you want specific cancer information, go to uchicagomedicine.org/cancer. To make an appointment, 855-702-8222. Thanks again for watching. Hope you have a wonderful week.
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Breast cancer survivors Roz Varon and Pam Henson discuss their stories. Then UChicago Medicine cancer and chemotherapy researchers, M. Eileen Dolan, PhD, and Carolyn Bruzdzinski, PhD, discuss advances in breast cancer research.
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