Three years ago, Sandra Little Brown fought the “valiant fight” against breast cancer and emerged victorious.
Brown has made it part of her life’s mission to educate others about the disease.
“There are many barriers to care,” said Brown, president pro tempore for the Jefferson County Commission. “This is about raising awareness, education and care if you are ever diagnosed with breast cancer. Early detection is key. We battle misinformation in the community.”
Brown shared her experience in fighting breast cancer in 2015.
“I had 16 rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy,” she said. “But I’m here to show you can come out on the other side. I am proof that you can have a happy life after breast cancer.”
Brown and representatives of several organizations increased breast cancer awareness during Partnerships in Birmingham: Collaborations that Advance Breast Cancer Awareness, Research and Treatment, a meeting for healthcare professionals at the St. Vincent’s Bruno Conference Center on April 27. About 100 doctors, healthcare providers and hospital administrators attended.
“We want to educate the public about treatment options, how to navigate the healthcare system and insurance coverage advocacy,” said Deanna Fowler, outreach and grants director – Susan B. Komen North Central Alabama.
“We want to educate people about what the diagnosis means and what to expect during treatment,” Fowler said. “We try to prepare people for the ‘dreaded callback,’ to address the myths and their fears. We know there are cultural barriers in how people face this disease, and we’re working on improving cultural competencies in the healthcare setting.”
Statistics show that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and one in 1,000 men will be diagnosed, said Beth Bradner Davis.
“The mission of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama is to help find a cure,” said Davis, executive director – BCRFA. “Since we began, we’ve raised $7.7 million that’s been invested in Alabama. This past year, we invested $950,000 in cancer research.”
Davis said that in 2017, breast cancer license plates in Alabama raised $475,000 for research.
Southern Research is making strides in the fight against the disease, with several cancer research programs, said Dr. Bo Xu.
“There are seven FDA-approved drugs, with additional drugs in the pipeline,” said Xu, distinguished fellow and chair – Southern Research. “We know that a lot of breast cancer has a family history. There are BRCA mutations – what we call an ‘Achilles heel’ in the DNA. We’ve seen significant progress in immunotherapy and are developing therapeutic peptides.”
Xu said that Southern Research has a strong collaboration – nationally and internationally – with some of the world’s largest breast cancer treatment centers. Cancer research shows that there are “driver” mutations and “passenger” mutations within cells that allow the progression of disease. Many cancer genomes are riddled with mutations. The majority are likely to be passengers – mutations that don’t contribute to the development of cancer but have occurred during the growth of a cancer, while a small minority are the critical drivers. Driver mutations push cells toward cancer from the passenger mutations that are a by-product of cancer cell development.
“We want to provide personalized treatment in the future,” he said. “If we can target driver mutations, we can cure cancer.”
Susan Sellers, president of St. Vincent’s Foundation at St. Vincent’s Health System, said their goal is to provide long-term cancer survivorship in Alabama.
“The average cost of cancer treatment is $20,000 to $200,000,” Sellers said. “There are lots of things that affect survivors, such as spiritual, cultural, psychological, medical, social and physical barriers. We want to help survivors and co-survivors from diagnosis through balance of life.”
Initiatives by the St. Vincent’s Foundation, which included community assessments for survivorship care, helped birth the Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Clinic in Birmingham in 2015. The center is supported by Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, Grandview Medical Center, St. Vincent’s and UAB Hospital..
The Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center provides a 24-hour telephone support line, advocate and peer mentor programs, professional counseling, informational tip sheets, support groups and other services.
“We connect survivors with other survivors,” said Caroline McClain, manager – Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center. “We create individualized patient care plans, offer ongoing distress screenings to help patients decrease their overall distress, and provide lifestyle and monthly gardening classes.
“It’s a fun way for survivors to get together and have community support while learning about new topics,” McClain said. “We’re empowering and uplifting the community. We talk with breast cancer survivors about their most concerning needs.”
The goal is to work with resources in the community to support survivors and their loved ones, said Breanna Powell, chief strategy officer for St. Vincent’s Health System.
“The Forge is a community and health system partnership,” Powell said. “We believe that the Forge is the future of medicine.”
For more information about services offered by the Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Clinic, call 1-800-811-8925.