- Faith & Family
Most of us have heard about breast cancer and probably know someone from our family or circle of friends who has faced this dreaded disease.
But how much do we really know about breast cancer? And should those who are diagnosed with breast cancer have any hope of survival or are they still facing an inevitable “death sentence” as was the case just a few decades ago?
Dr. Hakan Charles-Harris, who has cared for the North Miami community since 2000 and has been appointed medical director of the new Breast Cancer Center at North Shore Medical Center [slated to open in early 2013] and Dr. John Cooperwood, a Florida A&M University [FAMU] researcher and an associate professor of basic sciences in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, spoke with The Miami Times about changes in the treatment of breast cancer.
Charles-Harris, board certified by both the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Vascular Medicine – Endovascular, says that due to various improvements in treatment, the biggest difference he sees today is that most patients no longer succumb to the disease.
“Medical and surgical breakthroughs have made a huge difference in the overall survival rate of patients with breast cancer,” he said. “If you take all patients and all stages, some studies indicate that 88 percent survive 20 or more years. We’re really making progress because in the first
two-thirds of the 20th century, only 60 percent of patients survived 20 or more years.”
He says early detection is the major reason for the longer period of survival. As for why Black women are among those most impacted by breast cancer, he says, “detection tends to be later in the Black cohort because they have the greatest difficulty accessing medical care and are less educated regarding the disease.”
Charles-Harris notes that innovative approaches in surgery have benefited both women and men — as both sexes can fall victim to breast cancer.
“In the past, surgical options were limited — a mastectomy was very disfiguring and it was hard on the patient physically and psychologically,” he said. “One of the significant innovations called breast-conserving surgery involves removing the cancerous lump and leaving the breast behind with much less scarring and deformity. Now, with early detection and partial-breast radiation, which we have at our medical centers, there’s a much greater chance to save the breast.”
He notes that diet, particularly in young girls, is very important in lowering one’s chances of developing breast cancer. Overall, he says we have seen significant progress in treating breast cancer.
“Many women with breast cancer have said that with certain surgical procedures, they didn’t feel fully like a woman,” he said. “Now with the new forms of surgery, we are seeing less of an impact on a patient’s sex life, more patients can eventually return to work and there’s less scarring of the chest wall. More are seeing their self-image remain pretty much intact.”
Cooperwood’s research goes back to childhood pain
Studies indicate that triple-negative breast cancer tends to be one of the most aggressive forms of the disease and that it is more likely to spread beyond the breast and to recur after treatment. And it is more likely to affect Black and Hispanic women and younger people before age 40 or 50. Among those doing noteworthy research in order to better arm the medical world in its treatment of this form of breast cancer is Cooperwood. He recently secured a patent for a drug that may be the missing link to victory.
“I have been interested in breast cancer since I was a teenager and the disease took the life of my aunt,” he said. “But I never thought my research would involve breast cancer as my Ph.D dissertation dealt with HIV. I was always concerned with diseases that affected the Black population. And FAMU is the kind of university where the mission is to address health disparities such as triple-negative breast cancer.”
Cooperwood says he believes that he and his team are getting close to developing a compound that bears close resemblance to estrogen chemical structures.
“From there we would be much closer to developing estrogen receptive blockers,” he added.
If it all sounds quite technical that’s because it is. But what readers need to understand is that Cooperwood and his team of research assistants feel that they are very close to discovering a drug that could one day effectively treat triple-negative breast cancer, extending the survival rate of millions of women. That is good news.
By D. Kevin McNeir