Health sciences professor Rachel Mayo hopes to screen for and detect the disease early, when there are more treatment options. Her work centers on bringing information and health care access to all women, regardless of the circumstances that separate them.
Mayo knows better than anyone that cancer doesn’t discriminate according to race, education level or socioeconomic status. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer and, fortunately, her cancer was caught early.
“At the earliest stages, breast cancer has a 99 percent survival rate,” Mayo said. “If a woman who specializes in breast cancer research can get it, imagine how important it is to help people who don’t know anything about the disease. Breast cancer does not see the lines in society the way we do.”
This personal connection has renewed Mayo’s desire to understand and eliminate disparities in breast cancer rates. Disparities result wherever there is inequity in society — such as in education, income or access.
“White women are more likely to get breast cancer, but African-American women are twice as likely to die from it,” Mayo said. “In South Carolina, 23 percent of women have no health insurance and 25 percent have no medical provider.”
As a result, women living in rural communities are often less educated about breast cancer or unaware of the importance of screening.
Talley, Johnson, Mayo and Bullock
In order to eliminate this serious gap in health care access and education, Mayo brought the Witness Project to South Carolina. The project connects science with social networks, often partnering with churches and community groups, where women can share their experiences with breast cancer and explain the importance of screening.
Jacqueline Talley of Spartanburg is the statewide coordinator for the Witness Project, which has trained more than 400 witnesses. Those witnesses have made more than 900 presentations over the last seven years, reaching more than 4,000 women across the state.
“All women are at risk, and some American health care disparities are akin to developing countries,” Mayo said. “We need to talk about breast cancer whether or not it’s October.”
Leaving a Legacy
Nursing professor Julia Eggert lets her lab work do the talking. Her research delves into the biological aspects of breast cancer more than the social, political or perceptual dimensions of the disease.
“We’re down to the molecular level,” said Patilee Tate, the health care genetics lab technician who works closely with Eggert in her undergraduate research classes. “We are leaving a foundation that other work can build on.”
Eggert’s 22 years of clinical experience include managing a local site of an international breast cancer prevention trial that provided data for a major medical breakthrough: the impact of Tamoxifen to prevent breast cancer in women without a diagnosis of this disease. Tamoxifen solidifies the relationship between genetics and breast cancer since research has shown that Tamoxifen can decrease the incidence of breast cancer in women with a BRCA2 mutation.
“Breast cancer patients are special,” Eggert said. “Women with a family history who took Tamoxifen during the first prevention research study came to me and would say, ‘I take vitamins for myself, but I take the white pill for my granddaughter to prevent breast cancer in her lifetime.’”
But her patients aren’t the only ones who are special. When she came to Clemson, Eggert brought more than her experience — she brought her passion for action.
Eggert conducted a trial that examined the effects of berry products on neurological function during cancer treatment and wrote a book oncology nurses can use to improve quality of life in cancer patients. Recently she started a weekly cancer clinic at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System in Greenville. Her involvement in many different areas of breast cancer treatment and prevention has left a tangible mark on the way we approach the disease. But perhaps the most lasting of her accomplishments was her co-development of Clemson’s Healthcare Genetics doctoral program in the School of Nursing — one of the first programs in the nation to combine health care and genetics.
“Now, there are so many more people looking at the importance of including genetics into nursing curriculum,” Eggert said. “Researchers have been able to target genes for both diagnosis and treatment. We’re finding more ways to handle inherited mutations that contribute to a breast cancer diagnosis.”
Eggert recently received a $200,000 grant, in collaboration with Greenwood Genetic Center, to work with women who have been newly diagnosed with cancer to determine if they have a certain DNA mutation.
“In the study we are interested in all women, but particularly black women, in whom breast cancer can be more aggressive,” Eggert said. “We have a responsibility to understand what’s happening to our patients. It’s our job to give women control of their lives again when it seems like a disease has taken it from them.”