It’s been a quarter century since late Greenwich resident Mary Waterman faced a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, and a group of her friends promised they would fulfill her wish of helping by doing all they could to prevent and fight the disease for others.
Since then, the heartfelt conversations between Waterman’s friends that launched the Breast Cancer Alliance have created a formidable nonprofit with a strong local and global perspective and impact.
From its inception, BCA has focused on helping local women get the breast health care they need and deserve, funding programs that help underserved patients access treatment, cancer screenings and emotional support at hospitals in Fairfield and Westchester counties.
Through the years, the BCA has exponentially increased its reach and impact by directing millions of dollars into breast cancer research—with a particular emphasis on funding the work of up-and-coming investigators—while paving the way for more than fifty promising physicians to train as breast cancer surgeons.
As the BCA marks this impressive milestone with its annual fundraiser on Wednesday, October 20, we look at its continued focus on finding a closer-than-ever cure.
One-on-One With Executive Director Yonni Wattenmaker
GM: What would you say the most significant achievements have been during the past decade?
YW: There are so many things I’ve been grateful to be part of, but establishing our fellowship program was such an important turn to take. We are the only breast cancer organization in the whole country doing this. And it has really been a key part of our focus on reaching underserved communities. We have a surgeon in Ireland and inner-city Chicago—really all over the country.
Here’s the way I look at it in terms of impact: If these doctors are everywhere, we’re influencing treatment and survival rates. It’s also part of how we are making an impact on underserved communities. Having someone who is a true breast cancer specialist operating in your healthcare system, someone who is really trained in the nuances of the disease, is critical to outcomes.
Of course, our focus on research is of such critical importance and can’t be understated. The work we’re doing funding the research of young investigators in the early stages of their career, is groundbreaking, because it’s giving support to people who need to get to that next stage in their work, so they can get funding from organizations like the NIH to take their work to the next level.
GM: The Covid-19 pandemic hit many nonprofits hard. What impact did it have on BCA?
YW: It was harder to raise funds. We sometimes heard from some of our funders, “You’re not frontline,” but the reality is that when you’re providing healthcare services to underserved communities, particularly for breast cancer, you are very much frontline. [Covid] had a real impact in the sense that there have been critical delays in research and, of course, people were not seeing doctors and having medical procedures. As a result, we became increasingly worried about late-stage diagnosis, which is more challenging to treat. Our work didn’t stop, so we’re really focused on getting that message out.
GM: You’ve updated BCA’s logo for the twenty-fifth anniversary. Is there a message behind it?
YW: Blue was our founder Mary Waterman’s favorite color, so that was an important part of our look. But we wanted to evolve in recognition of our twenty-fifth year. By adding colors and the figures, we were saying something about who we serve and what we do. We are aware that men get breast cancer— it doesn’t discriminate by race; it doesn’t discriminate by age. All of these figures say something about who we represent as well as our focus on research, fellowships and direct support for the healthcare needs of underserved women.
GM: What’s next?
YW: We’re in this until we find a cure. This is very optimistic. And we don’t want to sound unrealistic or naïve, but we do feel like cures are within reach within the next decade. We may not be 100 percent there by the year 2030, but we think it’s possible to have such a profound impact that breast cancer becomes something much like AIDs, where there are treatments that make it more of a chronic disease and less of something that remains terminal for some people.
FACT VS. FICTION
Debunking Common Breast Cancer Myths
When it comes to breast cancer, arming yourself with facts can be lifesaving. “We know that 90 percent of breast cancers that are caught early are survivable,” says Yonni. “So the importance of screening and reaching women with accurate information is essential.”
To bust some persistent myths we turned to two Greenwich Hospital physicians who serve as BCA medical advisors to do some debunking. The experts are Dr. Barbara Ward, breast surgeon, and Dr. Linda LaTrenta, a radiologist who specializes in breast imaging.
NOT JUST ABOUT THE GIRLS
Evan Margolin was raised in a family where breast cancer “was rampant” in its women. He lost female relatives to the disease and watched others experience its devastating diagnosis and treatment. So when his wife noticed a small lump in his chest, he quickly brought it to the attention of a dermatologist he was seeing for a previously scheduled appointment. Soon, the husband and father was having a mastectomy and in treatment for breast cancer.
While breast cancer is not a common disease in males—less than 1 percent of all cases are diagnosed in men—it merits attention, because too many guys naively think they are immune, says Dr. Ward.
“Any time we are talking about breast cancer, the messages we share with women are about the importance of self-exam and self-awareness; these are really conversations we want to be having with men, too,” she says.
Vigilance is a requisite for men who are known carriers of the BRCA gene associated with higher risks of breast and ovarian cancers. “There are myths that male genetics are not important, but that’s where we see missed opportunities,” says Dr. Ward. “Men with BRCA genes are also at higher risk for prostate and pancreatic cancers. So having an awareness of genetic risk factors in males is important on many fronts.”
Men should be on the lookout for lumps that tend to be centered around the nipple that are palpable to the touch. “They present as rock hard, almost like a piece of gravel,” notes Dr. Ward.
Margolin, who is a BRCA carrier, says his own experience motivated him to support BCA’s male- focused outreach as well as its research initiatives. “Other than the bad news of the diagnosis, I know that I am a lucky man. I am privileged to have access to the amazing doctors that treated me and continue to treat me,” he says. “I am thankful that the recovery has been relatively uneventful—not fun and not without a good amount of stress and discomfort—but tolerable.
While family history can make women and men more susceptible to breast cancer, it’s dangerous to assume immunity because you don’t check that box. Dr. Ward notes the majority of breast cancers occur in women who don’t have any known risk factors.
“So often I’ll hear from women with a diagnosis [of breast cancer] that they are stunned because they eat healthy, there’s no family history and they just don’t understand where it came from,” says Dr. LaTrenta. “But the biggest risk factor is really their gender.”
APPOINTMENTS ARE BOOKED
The false narrative persists that breast cancer screenings are impossible to schedule these days because of Covid-19–related delays. “We really were only shut down for about six weeks,” says Dr. LaTrenta. “When we started back up, there was definitely a backlog, but we got through that. Things are back to normal, and we’re hoping people will book screenings, because we’ve definitely seen some people who avoided them to their detriment.”
SCREENING IS TOO EXPENSIVE
Greenwich Hospital’s community clinic offers free mammograms, biopsies, cervical cancer screenings and other health services important to women regardless of their lack of insurance or ability to pay. “There are lots of people with high-deductible healthcare plans who tend to avoid treatment, but this is out there and available to them,” says Dr. LaTrenta.
I DON’T NEED A MAMMOGRAM AND AN ULTRASOUND
Many women with dense breast tissue are encouraged to have breast ultrasounds as an added layer of diagnostic screening. But Dr. LaTrenta stresses that women who need ultrasounds should never skip their mammograms. “The idea that a mammogram is useless because [you] have dense breasts is completely false and dangerous,” she says, adding the two tests see breast tissue differently, meaning both are important. “The truth is the majority of breast cancers will be found because of that mammogram.”
THE DIVERSITY GAP
African-American women have two important reasons to take their breast cancer risks seriously: They tend to get it when they are younger than their white counterparts, and when they are older and get the disease, they have lower survival rates.
“Often, in younger African-American women, they have more aggressive cancers,” says Dr. Ward. “There’s something about these younger women that’s being investigated, but we still don’t know the answers on why.”
Paying even more attention to these racial disparities has become increasingly important. “We began years ago with the Witness Project, one of the very first programs that promoted access to breast health education in Bridgeport,” says Yonni. “But these conversations continue to be really important, as does the importance of research to understand these disparities and the way breast cancer impacts minority women.”
“Covid was a good example of how [race] and socioeconomics can play a role in health access,” notes Dr. Ward. “When people are worried about how they are going to get their next meal, they are not as focused on things like health screenings.”
A TOAST TO THE BCA LEADER
When Yonni Wattenmaker joined the Breast Cancer Alliance as its executive director in 2011, the nonprofit was entering a bold period of transformation. Its focus was shifting from a hyperlocal nonprofit to a more ambitious and determined one, committed to eradicating breast cancer near and far.
“I was asked to take this organization and enhance and grow it. But I honestly don’t think I was prepared at the time for how much we would grow,” she says. “THE ORGANIZATION HAS EVOLVED AND EXPANDED SO MUCH, BUT I ALSO BELIEVE THE VOLUNTEERS AND I HAVE GROWN TOGETHER IN THE PROCESS. There’s been so much support and shared vision.”
CELEBRATING IN STYLE
25TH ANNIVERSARY LUNCHEON & FASHION SHOW
Wednesday, October 20
Hosted by Richards at the Westchester Country Club
Because of Covid, the nonprofit’s team was still considering if it will opt for an in-person or virtual celebration. Tickets for the luncheon/fashion show and updates on all the organization’s events are available at breastcanceralliance.org
Other noteworthy events to mark the silver anniversary and Breast Cancer Awareness Month include:
FLAG-RAISING AT GREENWICH TOWN HALL
Friday, October 1
Thursday, September 30 in Katonah,
Friday, October 1 in Riverside
Thursday, October 14 in Darien
See the BCA’s website for a full list of participating retailers in each community
At press time, BCA was moving forward with plans for 25th anniversary events