Forum honors new "Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day"

When cure is not possible: Advances in treating and living with difficult breast cancers   


In the world of breast cancer survival, Shirley Mertz has come a long way by battling for 17 years. That is a long time to constantly be thinking about what treatment will come next and what the next scan results will show. She has metastatic breast cancer, and like many patients who also live with the disease, she has endured many emotional ups and downs.

On Monday, Oct. 13, at 4 p.m., in honor of the first ever "Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day," the University of Chicago Medical Center will present a free public forum in the atrium of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, 5758 S. Maryland Ave. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a proclamation for the day in honor of metastatic breast cancer patients, and 2008 is the first year it will be observed.

The program will feature Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, FACP, an international leader in breast cancer research and director of the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Olopade has a special interest in breast cancers that are difficult to treat and in women at high risk for this malignancy.

Shirley Mertz and Funmi Olopade From left: Shirley Mertz and Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, professor of medicine and human genetics and director of the Cancer Risk Clinic.

For the last four years, Mertz has seen Olopade for treatment and Mertz’s scans have been clear for several years. It is a good sign, but Mertz knows she will never be completely cancer free. Mertz sought to increase awareness of metastatic cancer-- the most deadly form of breast cancer--and asked Gov. Blagojevich to dedicate the day throughout Illinois.

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread beyond an initial site in the body into other organs. Some forms of breast cancer can be cured, but metastatic cancer survivors never get that final visit to the doctor. Many live with their cancer as a chronic condition and must be vigilant to keep it under control.  

"I compare being a metastatic cancer patient to being in a war zone and not being able to leave that war zone," said Mertz, 62, a former high school principal from Inverness.

"I want people to have hope." - Shirley Mertz

Her battle began in 1991 when she learned she had breast cancer and decided to undergo a double mastectomy that she hoped would end the problem. Twelve years later, cancer was found in her liver and spine. Searching for empathy and support, she asked her doctor if he could introduce her to another patient who also had metastatic breast cancer. She was dismayed that little help was available.

Mertz switched oncologists and started with Olopade in 2004. Olopade revised Mertz’s treatment and targeted it to her tumor type. Mertz was HER2 positive. Her aggressive cancer was treated with Herceptin and a chemotherapy drug.

Mertz maintains a healthy diet and regular exercise, and she also keeps up with breakthroughs in breast cancer research. She credits her rejuvenated life to Olopade, in addition to her incredibly supportive family and counseling from a fellow cancer survivor. Mertz is also Midwest coordinator for the national Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. The network strives to increase awareness and understanding of metastatic disease and the need for new life-extending treatments until a cure can be found.

"The statistics that are often quoted that you only have one or two years are often outdated," Mertz said. "I want people to have hope. They need to find a caring, knowledgeable oncologist who is going to pay attention to their tumor type and find the right individualized treatment for you."

The forum is sponsored by the University of Chicago's Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer, the Ludwig Center for Metastases Research at the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center. The Ludwig Center operates at six distinguished research institutions in the U.S. -- a collaborative that gathers the best minds in the nation to study cancer causes, treatment, and prevention. The Ludwig Center at the University of Chicago Medical Center focuses on cancer metastases.

Speakers:

Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, FACP, Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Medicine
Olopade received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and is a principal investigator for a large-scale study supported by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate genetic and environmental factors that contribute to breast cancer.

Geoffrey Greene, PhD, Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research
He is also vice chair of the Ben May Department for Cancer Research and co-director of the Ludwig Center for Metastases Research. Greene is internationally recognized and received many awards for his contributions to the field of steroid hormone action and breast cancer research.

Andy Minn, MD, PhD, assistant professor of radiation and cellular oncology
An investigator at the Ludwig Center, Minn focuses research on the molecular mechanisms of treatment resistance and is currently developing new diagnostic tools that will identify tumors that are likely to resist therapy.

About the University of Chicago Medical Center

The University of Chicago Medical Center, established in 1927, is one of the nation's leading academic medical institutions. It consists of the renowned Pritzker School of Medicine; Bernard Mitchell Hospital, the primary adult patient care facility; Comer Children's Hospital, devoted to the medical needs of children; Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a maternity and women's hospital; and the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, a state-of-the-art ambulatory-care facility with the full spectrum of preventive, diagnostic, and treatment functions. Care is provided by more than 700 attending physicians - most of whom are full-time University faculty members - 620 residents and fellows, more than 1,000 nurses and 9,500 employees.

The Medical Center is consistently recognized as a leading provider of complex medical care. It is the only Illinois hospital ever to make the U.S.News & World Report Honor Roll, with eight clinical specialties--digestive disorders; cancer; endocrinology; neurology and neurosurgery; heart and heart surgery; kidney disease; geriatrics; and ear, nose and throat--ranked among the top 30 programs nationwide. The cancer program is rated the top oncology program in Illinois. The Medical Center was awarded Magnet status in 2007, the highest level of recognition for nursing care.

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