U.Va. Health System and Charlottesville community work together to raise breast cancer awareness

The U.Va. Health System provides plenty of ways to get involved in National Breast Cancer Awareness Month but stresses that care and education are year-round endeavors

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Football players visit patients and hand out teddy bears for breast cancer awareness.

Photo Courtesy Tracey Gosse

Originating more than 30 years ago as a joint effort between the American Cancer Society and a leading manufacturer of oncology drugs now known as AstraZeneca, National Breast Cancer Awareness month is every October. The U.Va. Health System is using this month to educate the public about the robust range of care options it provides for breast cancer patients —  highlighting its unique team approach to patient care and partnerships with businesses around Charlottesville to raise money for research.

The CDC says that breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women of all races and ethnicities. Similarly, factors such as family history of the disease and higher density of breast tissue are cited as influential in an individual’s development of breast cancer — these factors are at work no matter a woman’s age, although risk increases greatly at age 50.  

However, the U.Va. Breast Care Center treats breast cancer patients of all ages. Doctors at the Center say they are dedicated to providing care to these patients using a meticulous team approach that creates a diverse range of opinions and ideas.  

Dr. Amy Bouton, associate dean of Graduate and Medical Scientist Programs at U.Va. School of Medicine, spoke on the importance of this collaborative method — exemplified in teams of doctors and other professionals called tumor boards — in treating patients with difficult diseases like breast cancer.  

“We have radiologists and oncologists and nurse practitioners and surgeons and genetic counselors, and they all get together and discuss every single case before they make decisions on how best to treat that patient,” Bouton said.  “And the very cool thing is that our graduate students get a chance to attend these tumor boards, and they get to understand how these decisions about treatment are made from this team approach.” 

Researchers like Bouton and her professional and graduate colleagues are members of these teams, who dedicate their time to be able to provide any new information that could improve the quality of care for breast cancer patients.  

“It’s the people who do the basic science research that are really critical members of the whole team because they’re providing the information that will then inform new drug development, new biomarkers to try to understand what types of tumors should get treated in what ways, and new therapies,” Bouton said.  

Examples of professionals doing important research just as Bouton described are the doctor herself and her colleagues. Bouton studies macrophages — a type of immune cell — and how they may affect tumors in breast tissue and their response to various drugs.  

Also in the U.Va. Health System, Dr. Melanie Rutkowski is currently studying the effects antibiotics can have on the microbiome and if this can connect in some cases to breast cancer, and Dr. Sanchita Bhatnagar is researching triple negative breast cancer — a specific form of the disease that lacks three protein receptors typically associated with it.  Doctors such as these women are constantly working to pave the way for new advances in the breast cancer field, and their work is just one element supported by the donations National Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings in to the U.Va. Breast Care Center.

Currently, Healthline states that survival rates for breast cancer depend on factors such as stage of cancer, type of breast cancer and age.  Advances in research and technology have led to a 90.6 percent five-year breast cancer survival rate in females as measured in 2008.  This statistic was achieved through years of work and research that are supported each October through donations and awareness.  

Health professionals say that this awareness starts with each individual. Manager of Oncology Programs Tracey Gosse recommends a yearly mammogram after age 40, and various options exist to accommodate different breast types in patients.  Two-dimensional and three-dimensional mammography are both available at the University and are distinguished between based on the relative density of breast tissue they measure well.  Gosse also stressed the importance of monthly self breast exams for women, as this diligent practice may help with early detection and yield better outcomes for patients.

In past years, the U.Va. Health System has issued a series of events dedicated to breast cancer awareness, education and fundraising.  

This year, a variety of different events are being held during the month of October to show support. Gosse said that the Health System is currently partnering with businesses Alex and Ani, Kendra Scott and Albemarle Baking Company, among others.  When customers purchase certain items from these businesses during October, a portion of the proceeds are donated to the U.Va. Health System. As for how this money is used, Gosse listed breast cancer research, clinical programs for breast cancer patients, and breast cancer education tools for the newly diagnosed as possible avenues.

Danica Rose, associate director of development for annual giving in cancer programs at the University, is very involved in the charitable aspect of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and detailed some of the events and promotions taking place around Charlottesville in October to benefit breast cancer patients.  Members of Zeta Tau Alpha at the University held their Pink Week event Oct. 13-Oct. 20, donating all fundraising proceeds to breast cancer research.  On Friday, Zoom Indoor Cycling donated all proceeds from rides to the U.Va. Breast Cancer Center.  Finally, throughout this month, Panera Bread will be featuring a pink ribbon bagel and donating a portion of the proceeds from this product to research at the University. 

According to Gosse, while one month dedicated to increasing awareness and education with special events like these benefits the breast cancer field each year, it is easy to get caught up in a mindset that only transiently focuses on the disease. She emphasized that individual self-care and effort are just as important.  

“We all know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but breast cancer can happen all throughout the year,” Gosse said. “So don’t stop checking just because you’ve gotten through October.”

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