Much has changed in the world of oncology care since DBCC held its first Breast Cancer Update 15 years ago, and the Update has changed along with it.
Consider that the first Update was geared almost exclusively to medical doctors and was viewed as a way to sensitize them to the needs and concerns of their patients. Cancer care has evolved since then to include a whole spectrum of services, with the patient much more in control of her care. So the audience for today’s Update includes not only doctors, but also nurses, social workers and breast cancer survivors. The size of the audience has grown commensurately, with the free, day-long conference now regularly attracting 300 to 400 people.
“The Breast Cancer Update does a really good job of reaching both professionals and laypeople, and there’s ample time for mingling at breaks and lunch, which allows professionals to get a better understanding of the patient’s mind-set,” says DBCC board member Dennis Witmer, M.D., who has been a part of the Update planning for many years.
This year’s Update, held April 18, was themed “Bridging the Gap—From Surviving to Thriving.” That theme, too, reflects changes that have taken place in the past decade and a half. Nationally the breast cancer mortality rate dropped 20.5 percent between 1992-1996 and 2002-2006. In Delaware the news was even better—the breast cancer mortality rate here dropped 30.1 percent during that same period.
As its name implies, each year the Update covers the latest advances in medical treatments for breast cancer. This year, for example, nationally prominent guest speakers discussed the evolution from broader spectrum radiation and chemotherapy to targeted therapies such as brachytherapy that can attack the cancer but cause fewer side effects for the patient.
“Targeted therapies are a giant step forward in the treatment of breast cancer,” Witmer says. “People who specialize in oncology know about it, but it’s not common for laypeople to be aware of it.”
Because women are living longer and in many cases beating the cancer altogether, this year’s conference also included sessions on survivorship plans. “There has been a disconnect between the oncologist and the primary care physician,” says Nanci Mayer-Mihalski, co-chair of the Update planning committee. “There needs to be a survivorship plan for the five-year mark, after the full treatment is done. We need to get the patient to start thinking and asking about the issue.”
Among those attending the Update every year are students in Karen Potts’ Practical Nursing course at the Delaware Skills Center, which is part of New Castle County Vo-Tech’s adult education program. “The class is predominantly female, and many will go on to become RNs,” Potts says. “They need to know about breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment for themselves, their families and their patients.”
That’s exactly the role that the Update is designed to play, Witmer says. “Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge we can disseminate to people, the better. We want breast cancer survivors to be involved in their own care and to be a breast cancer evangelist—to get out there and tell their own story, to help others diagnosed with breast cancer, and to encourage women to get mammograms.”