As Breast Cancer Treatment Advances, So Does Support

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Women battling breast cancer don’t have to look far for care and support. The Mahoning Valley has a dedicated network of businesses and treatment centers that contribute to the fight.

At the same time, “Treatment continues to advance,” says Dr. Lori Hemrock, co-founder and vice president of the Hope Center for Cancer Care, which operates centers in Warren and Boardman.

“I’ve seen therapies evolve since we opened up in 2006,” she says.

Today, intravenous chemotherapy and hormonal therapy is not necessary for all breast cancer patients, Hemrock says. “There are more oral drugs for breast cancer so that not everyone has to be on IV therapy anymore.”

And while chemotherapy and hormonal therapy remain the traditional treatments used to combat the disease, physicians and researchers have found in the last five years that oral drugs such as Ibrance, combined with hormonal pills, have allowed some patients to remain off intravenous therapy.

“The quality of life is better for these patients,” Hemrock says.

Moreover, patients might be eligible for targeted therapies – drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer cells, but minimize the damage to normal, healthy cells.

The Hope Center was established in 2006 to provide Mahoning Valley residents with treatments that they would often have to seek in larger metropolitan areas, Hemrock says.

It’s vital for women to undergo a mammogram at least once a year, Hemrock says with emphasis. For those who have high-risk factors (See page 51), it’s not unusual to recommend they receive a mammogram twice a year, she says.  

Mammograms are not 100% reliable, Hemrock notes. But they can detect breast cancer as early as stage zero, thereby considerably improving a patient’s chance of survival.  “It’s vital to get the mammogram. It’s a very valuable tool,” she emphasizes.

Still, a woman should never ignore a lump on her breast, even though a mammogram shows a clean reading, Hemrock says.  “Go see your doctor immediately,” she says, urgency in her voice.

After women undergo breast cancer surgery, medical supply companies provide critical support. At Boardman Medical Supply, for example, the company operates Pink Promises, a boutique of post-op products for women who have experienced a life-changing event such as a mastectomy.

“We started Pink Promises with the idea of helping women in the area because there were no boutiques around,” says Robin Ivany, co-owner and vice president of Boardman Medical.

The goal was to open an elegant boutique in a section of the store that specifically carries post-mastectomy or breast reconstruction products such as bras, swimwear, camisoles and forms.

“We start their journey with them right before their surgery,” Ivany says.

It’s not unusual for a customer on her initial visit to spend an hour or so discussing options with the staff, she explains.

“We like to spend time with them, it’s extremely rewarding,” she says.

Often the first product women receive is a compression garment to wear shortly after surgery, Ivany says.

“They get it prior to surgery so they have it when they’re out,” she says.

The garment places pressure on the chest to prevent swelling and helps with the healing. After about six weeks, the customer can return and be fitted for forms, lumpectomy shells and bras, she says, all of which are covered by insurance.

“At that point, you see a big change in the woman,” Ivany says. “They have a sense of completeness again – it does make a difference in their mental health.”

Pink Promises boutiques are found at Boardman Medical’s stores in Girard and Boardman, Ivany says. “We want to make it all about the woman,” she says.

Businesses that are not affiliated with the medical profession see value in supporting the fight against breast cancer as well.

Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC in Boardman, for example, has a long history of contributing to the annual Panerathon – a 10K and 2-mile fun run and walk held in downtown Youngstown and Mill Creek Park.  The money raised is used to support the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center at Mercy Health St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of the event this year. So the Sweeney dealerships pivoted and found another way to contribute during October, which is breast cancer awareness month, says Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC.

“We’ve decided to donate $50 to the Joanie Abdu Center for every new Chevrolet, Buick or GMC vehicle we sell,” she says. The donations would accumulate during the entire month of October, she says.

Sweeney Blackann says participating in the Panerathon is a rich, rewarding experience for the employees and families at the dealership.

“For years, we had the biggest team and it energized us,” she says, noting about 300 Sweeney employees and family members participated in the annual event.

“We missed that this year. And we wanted to do something to replace it,” she says.

Such community support is critical, says Paul Homick Jr., president of the Mercy Health Foundation.

“We are so extremely grateful to Sweeney,” Homick says  “We’ve had some support. But this is the largest, most coordinated effort.”

Money the Panerathon raises goes directly to the Joanie’s Promise Fund, which supports breast cancer care for women at the center who cannot afford treatment, Homick says. Last year, Panerathon raised $525,000; the event has brought in more than $3 million over the last nine years. 

With the cancellation of Panerathon this year, the foundation stands to lose $500,000 or more in support to help to provide free care for cancer victims, Homick says. “It’s the biggest support for the Promise Fund every year. That free care is critical,” he says.

That’s why the Sweeney contribution is vital to help support the fund this year in the face of COVID-19, Homick adds. “The impact is going to be tremendous.”