Scientist's driving interest in breast cancer wins honor

March 23, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Dr. Kay Dickersin's "hobby" is breast cancer. She has the disease. Two of three sisters have it. A young son once wondered if a future daughter would have it. Friends have it.

At the University of Maryland Medical School, the epidemiologist focuses on making sense of vast amounts of research on various diseases. But her hobby of helping women with breast cancer is a passion that has turned her and her colleagues into what many women see as human beacons of help.

Dr. Dickersin, co-founder of the Arm-in-Arm support network, and four other community leaders who also are city residents, will be honored today by the Baltimore City Commission for Women at the 11th annual Women's Hall of Fame ceremony before an expected 300 people at La Fontaine Bleu, 3120 Erdman Ave.

The doctor's work as a voluntary fighter against breast cancer, member of numerous national cancer panels and epidemiologist studying new treatments for different diseases led President Clinton to name her last year to a six-year-term on the National Cancer Institute's influential National Cancer Advisory Board.

More than 500 Maryland women have received support and advice at meetings of Arm-in-Arm. It was founded in 1987 by Dr. Dickersin and Marsha Oakley, a mammography unit nurse at St. Agnes Hospital, now group president.

The two women had had no known risk factors when their breast cancer was diagnosed. Dr. Dickersin had a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Ms. Oakley had a lumpectomy and six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Women still ask the question they asked then: Why are so many women getting this disease?

"The incidence of breast cancer continues to be frightening," said Dr. Dickersin, confirming still rising statistics. Each year, about 45,000 American women die; one in eight American women gets it. Earlier and better diagnosis is a factor, but the incidence also is going up, Dr. Dickersin said.

Arm-in-Arm groups meet monthly at five hospitals, sponsor lectures and rallies and give comfort and advice to patients.

The Arm-in-Arm hot line number is (410) 494-0083.

The group was the first in Central Maryland organized and run by women with the disease in all its stages, and it helped form the National Breast Cancer Coalition in 1991. Dr. Dickersin credited Ms. Oakley, volunteers such as Annette Drummond and many others with its success.

After national lobbying by many advocates, including Dr. Dickersin, in the early 1990s, federal funding to study breast cancer rose dramatically. "Breasts, not bombs" was one slogan. In 1993 federal funding jumped from $90 million to $400 million and has stayed at that level since.

"We're starting to reap the harvest of this investment in understanding more, but, as with most diseases, breakthroughs prevention and treatment take a long time. In fact, we have not made much progress," Dr. Dickersin said.

To her then-10-year-old son who asked the question about his future daughter, Dr. Dickersin said "we are so powerless" to know or do anything.

A better life, not just preventing death, is a goal of many advocates. They tell researchers and others to focus on improving the quality of life for survivors, Dr. Dickersin said.

An assistant professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine UM Medical School, she is also director of the Baltimore Cochrane Center, part of a worldwide network taking on the monumental task of assimilating medical research results. It will take years.

An unusual aspect of this project, done for the first time, is its attempt to collect results of studies that were not published, she said.

"Medical publication bias is such that if 10 studies investigating a new treatment were conducted and only two showing that the new treatments works were published, this would present an inaccurate picture of what we've learned about this new treatment.

"The other information can be useful. Lay people get this my mother can't believe the medical profession hasn't kept track of all it's done."

Women's Hall of Fame

Women to be honored today with Dr. Dickersin are:

Georgine Edgerton: Walbrook leader. Has led Cahill Recreation Center Council, Walbrook Youth Summer Corps program, Southwestern Police District Community Relations Council and is president of Mount Holly Improvement Association. Played key role in rebuilding Cahill center in 1970, starting COPE (Citizens Organized to Purchase Energy) and organizing Pantry Shelf food program for the hungry.

Patricia C. Jessamy: Baltimore state's attorney, the first woman in the post. Member of committee screening applicants for admission to Maryland bar. Helped develop two nonprofit corporations to benefit sexually abused children and the learning disabled. Created programs for nuisance abatement, witness security and grants coordination. Actively supports groups such Partnership for Learning Inc.

Betty J. Martin: Lyndhurst activist for 20 years and licensed practical nurse for 30 years at University Hospital. Founder of Martin Resources Inc., a community-based nonprofit that coordinates programs from elementary school through high school to build self-esteem and promote academic excellence. Works on civic improvement projects through New Shiloh Baptist Church and other groups.

Beverly Thomas: Co-founder of Baltimore City Wide Liquor Coalition that fights the negative impact of liquor establishments by backing laws banning outdoor alcohol advertising targeting youths. President of Park-Reist Corridor Coalition Inc., which works to revitalize neighborhood. Helped set up Paralegal and Street Law Training Program for Northwestern High School students.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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