COME OCTOBER, there’s a sea of pink everywhere, from pink ribbons on yogurt containers to pink trucks delivering heating oil to NFL players sporting pink helmets and game apparel. It’s all for Breast Cancer Awareness Month—31 days dedicated to raising visibility of the disease as well as the importance of regular screening and early detection.
“There’s such awareness now of breast cancer—it’s a movement,” says Judith Salerno, M.D. ’73, president and CEO of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer organization, the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research. “The danger is that people will think, ‘Problem solved.’”
The reality is that breast cancer is the most common women’s cancer worldwide and also the one growing at the fastest rate. In China alone, the incidence of breast cancer is increasing by 3 percent to 4 percent each year. In the United States, one-third of all women diagnosed will die from breast cancer. That’s 40,000 women a year.
So the problem is very much not solved. But there is also reason for hope: over the past 30 years, researchers, doctors and advocates have made significant advances in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Stonehill has some notable names on the frontlines of this effort: Salerno at Dallas-based Komen; Stonehill Trustee Marsha A. Moses, Ph.D. ’75, a Harvard Medical School researcher and pioneer in the field of biomarkers; Stonehill Trustee Sheri McCoy P ’12, CEO of Avon Products, Inc., whose Avon Breast Cancer Crusade is the largest corporate funder of breast cancer research and patient care; and Katherine (Grimm) Andreottola ’98, a breast cancer survivor and ambassador for the Tigerlily Foundation, an organization dedicated to meeting the needs of women under 40 diagnosed with breast cancer.
Together, these four women are making significant strides in the worldwide battle against the disease by making scientific discoveries, funding research and community screening as well as helping those coping with a diagnosis and undergoing treatment.
Moses, the Julia Dyckman Andrus Professor at Harvard Medical School, has spent her career pushing the frontiers of cancer research and discovery. Director of the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, she oversees 15 labs with approximately 120 researchers, while leading her own cancer research laboratory. Moses and her colleagues have made a number of basic science discoveries that are improving both breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. “One of the most exciting developments is the understanding that breast cancer is not one disease but a satellite of different diseases,” says Moses, noting descriptors like “estrogen-positive” or “triple negative” that now accompany diagnoses.
One of her lab’s recent innovations is finding a panel of biomarkers for breast cancer that can be detected in urine, a discovery that, in addition to its potential in current clinical practice, could be lifesaving for women in rural areas and medically underserved countries around the world. Moses also envisions a day when patients will be able to utilize such tests to self-monitor in collaboration with their physicians. “Today’s medical consumers are smart. They want to know quickly and precisely if a treatment is working,” she says. By testing a couple of drops of urine, “cancer treatment could accurately and sensitively turn on a dime.”
Where biomarkers show promise for early detection, Moses is also investigating the other end of the spectrum: metastasis, when cancer spreads to other organs in the body. “Cancer patients die mostly from metastasis,” she explains. Moses and her colleagues have had a long-standing interest in angiogenesis—the process by which tumors develop blood vessels, which allows the cancer to grow and spread to other sites. As long as the angiogenic “switch” remains off, tumors don’t grow; once they turn on, however, cancer can progress and metastasize.
Moses and her group have discovered a number of angiogenesis inhibitors, some of which are undergoing pre-clinical development. In the years ahead, she sees “greater emphasis and support of breast cancer metastasis research.”
The Avon Breast Cancer Crusade is already investing in such research. In partnership with Pfizer, it recently launched the Metastatic Breast Cancer Grants Program. “There is a shocking and unfortunate lack of information and services for this group, all of whom will die from their disease,” says McCoy. “Patients who develop metastatic disease have the worst case scenario and are the segment of the breast cancer population who needs our support the most.”
The Crusade, like the Komen Foundation, also funds patient education, community outreach and promising research into prevention. Through the Crusade, more than 18 million women in 50 countries have received free mammograms. The program brings doctors to the U.S. from medically underserved countries so they can learn firsthand about advances in treatment. It recently announced the Breast Cancer Start-up Challenge, which will take promising lab discoveries to market more quickly so they can help patients.
“Our work in breast cancer is so tied to our mission of empowering women,” continues McCoy. “Everyone has been touched by someone who has had breast cancer. For me, it was my mother. I do the Avon Walk in New York City every year, and I’m always struck by the number of people who come up to thank me—saying, ‘You helped my wife, or my mom or my sister.’ I find those personal stories most rewarding.”
Spreading the Word
Salerno at Komen has had similar experiences. “I love getting out all over the country and the world and seeing firsthand the work that Komen is doing. We’ve touched every major advance in breast cancer over the past 30 years. We’re making a difference in people’s lives at the grassroots level,” she says.
To date, Komen has invested more than $840 million in research and more than $1.7 billion in thousands of community outreach programs geared to the underserved, providing funds for scrreenings, transportation, patient navigation programs, medical supplies, living expenses and follow-up support.
In the U.S., Komen continues to pursue new avenues of outreach: this year, it partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment to bring portable screening units to an event in Greenville, S.C. “Hundreds of women lined up to get mammograms,” Salerno explains. “We actually found one woman with an aggressive tumor eroding through her skin—something you’d only expect to see in the developing world. That shows me how much more work we have to do.”
Breast cancer disparities like this top Salerno’s agenda. Rural women suffer disproportionately, as do African-American women, who are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than Caucasian women with the same diagnosis. “There seems to be some genetic propensity, but it likely also has to do with access to treatment,” Salerno says.
Komen is investigating these inequalities as well as the rise in the number of younger women diagnosed with breast cancer. One of those is Andreottola, who in 2012 was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer—one of the most aggressive forms. A 35-year-old single mother with a daughter, who was 5, Andreottola had a double mastectomy followed by 18 weeks of chemotherapy. When genetic testing showed she carried the BRCA1 mutation, which also increases risk for ovarian cancer, she opted for a hysterectomy as well.
Before these events unfolded, Andreottola, who worked in alumni relations at George Mason University in Virginia, met Maimah Karmo, a young Mason alumna and a breast cancer survivor. Andreottola invited Karmo to speak to a student leadership group on campus about the Tigerlily Foundation, an organization Karmo founded to help women under 40 diagnosed with breast cancer.
Two years later, Andreottola turned to Tigerlily for support through her treatment and recovery and later became an ambassador for the organization. “Tigerlily helps with everything—wigs, transportation, even rent and child care if people can’t pay their bills during treatment,” she explains.
“Breast cancer doesn’t define me, but it redefined my life,” Andreottola continues. Her motivation for sharing her breast cancer journey is simple: “I want to make sure my daughter doesn’t have to face this and that she is educated and empowered to make decisions that could save her life.”
These four leaders are optimistic about the future of breast cancer research and advocacy. Salerno, for example, foresees more cooperation among stakeholders. “Right now, there are more than 1,400 breast cancer organizations in the U.S. All are doing good work,” she says. Salerno wonders, however, if there’s a way “we can think more collaboratively to pool resources rather than thinking of each other as competitors.” She sees that approach also extending to other cancer organizations. “There are common mechanisms across cancers. Is there opportunity to come together to advance science for all cancers?”
Salerno finds inspiration in the example of melanoma, or skin cancer. Over the past three decades, “melanoma has gone from a death sentence to a survivable disease. I want more women to be able to live with breast cancer,” she says. “I hope that our investments will lead not only to better treatments but also better prevention, like a vaccine.”
McCoy also sees great promise in partnership. “We need to continue, all of us, to make sure we’re working together in advancing breast cancer care and research.” To that end, McCoy says, “I’m very proud of the Avon Foundation’s work—advancing the cause of educating women about their health. And I’m also proud of Stonehill College. Look at the way Stonehill women are coming together to make a difference in breast cancer.”
Precious Gift, Crummy Box
After her breast cancer diagnosis, Katherine (Grimm) Andreottola ’98 [right with her daughter, Sophie] became an ambassador for the Tigerlily Foundation, speaking to other “survivors-in-training” about her experience.
In one of her speeches, she talks about what she has lost and gained:
For so many women, breast cancer robs you of things so many of us define as what makes us a woman. But buried deep in the fear and sorrow, you find an inner strength and beauty that exemplifies what it really means to be a woman.
Surgeries can’t remove your spirit or your true beauty. If anything, it frees them for the world to see.
Through a fear of dying, I now know how to live. In this way, cancer was a gift. It came wrapped in a really crummy box, but it was a precious gift, nonetheless.
Purple Goes Pink
So many Stonehill students participate in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk every October that the American Cancer Society sends buses to take them to Boston.
What began in 1994, when Biology Professor Sheila Barry took a small group of students to the walk, has evolved into something substantial. Last year, five buses took more than 100 students to the five-mile walk. Significantly, 20 of them were members of the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Learning Community taught by Professor Barry and Wellness Educator Jessica Greene.
Another campus initiative is the College’s participation in the Lee National Denim Day. Sponsored by the Human Relations office, the event allows participants to donate $5 or more to the American Cancer Society in exchange for wearing jeans to work.
Also, every year, Stonehill’s volleyball team hosts Dig Pink events in support of the Side-Out Foundation, which promotes breast cancer awareness and education. The basketball team partners with the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, which funds cutting-edge research and works to give cancer patients access to experimental drugs and clinical trials.
Story from the Stonehill College Alumni Magazine, Summer | Fall 2014.