Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Running for the Cure

Published in the June 2004 AAMC Courier

As I stood at the corner of Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue at 7:20 a.m., I found myself surrounded by a sea of white T-shirts with more than a few waves of pink. A light rain drizzled down, occasionally giving way to a harder pelt, and the temperature was an unseasonably cool 65 degrees. But the overcast skies, water and chill hadn’t kept the crowd of nearly 60,000 at home.

Instead, thousands covered in light rain parkas or bedecked in spandex running shorts stood in the middle of the street, stretching their muscles — they were preparing to start the 5K National Race for the Cure. And this year, I was one of them.

During childhood, I stood at the finish line, waiting for my father to cross. In my closet, I have shirts from almost every race he finished — the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, S.C. or any March of Dimes Race. But I’d never laced up my own sneakers to run.

This June 5 was different, though. Not only had my father surprised me and traveled nine hours to run with me, but we had a reason to run through the middle of Independence Avenue. My mother is a breast cancer survivor, and we ran in her honor.

So, at 8 a.m., we started our run down the Mall, back up in front of the Air and Space Museum, over and back across the Tidal Basin and partly up 15th Street. In a little over a half hour (though the time doesn’t matter), we crossed the finish line, marking two important moments — our first father/daughter race and our first contribution to the fight against breast cancer.

Since the 1940s, the incidence of breast cancer has risen in the United States by 1 percent each year. The numbers are only now beginning to level off. Still, roughly 216,000 American women will be diagnosed in 2004 alone. However, screenings and education programs have drive the mortality rate down, even though occurrence is still high.

Every year since the early 1980s, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation raises tens of millions of dollars to fund research for a cure. Each year, up to 75 percent of funds raised remain in the local communities, supporting educational and outreach programs, as well as screenings for underserved women. At least 25 percent goes to the Foundation, founded in 1983, to back breast cancer research, meritorious awards and scientific programs around the world.

Last year, in D.C. alone, thanks to more than 61,000 participants, the foundation raised more than $2.6 million, and $1 million of that remained in our area to treat local women. That’s a long way to come from the race’s humble beginnings here in the nation’s capital.

The first Race for the Cure in the District occurred in 1990. Former Carter White House Social Secretary Gretchen Poston, Marilyn Quayle  and Washington Post fashion editor Nine Hyde spearheaded the project and gathered roughly 7,500 people and almost $500,000 for the cause.

The way the Foundation has grown in the past 20 years is proof that one person can start a snowball effect that changes the lives of thousands of other people. Nancy Brinker launched the race in 1983 to honor a promise she made to her sister Susan Komen. Before losing her three-year battle with cancer, Komen asked her sister to do everything she could to further breast cancer research and to educate women about the deadly disease. Brinker started fundraising with the first race in Dallas. It had only 800 participants. Today, Race for the Cure is the largest 5K race/walk in the world.

Judging by this year’s turnout, the event will only continue to grow in size. Each year, more and more survivors don their pink shirts, identifying themselves as the ones who beat the disease, and join the thousands in support of those still suffering. While seeing more pink shirts means doctors are diagnosing and treating breast cancer earlier, there are many, my family included, who look forward to the day when the Komen Foundation has reached its goal of finding a cure.

March 24, 2010 Posted by | Family, Healthcare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aggressive Breast Cancer in African-American Women: Investigating the Genetic Link

Published in the 2009 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing Research Chronicle

African-American women experience less breast cancer than women of other ethnicities. However, the breast cancers these women develop are often more invasive and aggressive. Assistant professor Theresa Swift-Scanlan is investigating the reasons behind this disparity and believes the answer lies in understanding epigenetic modifications to women’s DNA and how they are affected by lifestyle behaviors and environmental exposures. Epigenetic modifications are molecular level changes that alter gene expression without altering the primary sequence of DNA.

According to Swift-Scanlan, African-American pre-menopausal women are more likely than women of other ethnicities to develop basal-like breast cancer, a tumor subtype that does not have receptors for estrogen or the growth factor Her2. Basal-like tumors are resistant to effective therapies that target these receptors, such as tamoxifen and herceptin. The end result is that these tumors are very difficult to treat and are associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

According to previous data, Swift-Scanlan said, basal-like tumors occur in white women and other ethnic groups at all ages, just at a lower frequency than in African-American pre-menopausal women. Differences in the frequency of this tumor subtype appear to be due to varying distributions of risk factors

Asst. Prof. Theresa Swift-Scanlan conducting research into the epigenetics of breast cancer in her research lab.

across ethnic groups. Risk factors for basal-like tumors include not breastfeeding and larger waist-to-hip ratios. Unlike other breast cancer subtypes, having more children at a younger age appears to increase rather than decrease risk for basal-like breast cancer.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation awarded Swift-Scanlan a three-year, $450,000 Career Catalyst in Cancer Disparities Award to study gene methylation in basal-like breast cancer and four other tumor subtypes. The grant funds her efforts to determine whether DNA methylation – which can silence genes by changing the way the DNA is packaged within the cell – in concert with facts known about breast cancer subtype risk factors, could unearth ways to reduce mortality from the disease among African-American women. She also has funding through a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award.

Swift-Scanlan also hopes to identify genes that, when methylated, could contribute to early disease detection and risk assessment for all women.

“I hope that this research will help women in the decision making process,” she said. “Deciding what to do after a breast cancer diagnosis is a very personal and profound choice. Having this knowledge could help providers assist women in making the best decision for them while avoiding the problem of over- or under-treating the disease.”

Swift-Scanlan will analyze breast tissue samples and clinical data from at least 160 African-American women enrolled in the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, 80 of whom are pre-menopausal and 80 who are post-menopausal. Her main collaborators are genetics associate professor Charles Perou at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and epidemiology professor Robert Millikan at the School of Public Health.

March 23, 2010 Posted by | Family, Healthcare | , , , | Leave a comment


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