By Rob Morris on August 27, 2019
Because The Outer Banks Hospital (TOBH) has proven its ability to solve complex community health challenges, the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) and Pfizer have awarded a grant that will help the Outer Banks community move one more step ahead of cancer.
Titled “BRCA Screening—Early and Often,” the grant focuses on bringing genetic testing and genetic counseling for breast cancer to the Outer Banks. (BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the best-known genes linked to breast cancer risk.)
Why is genetic testing important? We know that detecting cancer as early as possible offers the best chance for a positive outcome. Many of us are proactive and have annual mammograms; however, a common misconception is that if the screening is clear, everything is okay. But there may be a gene lying dormant that cannot be detected by a mammogram. Of course, just because the gene is present doesn’t mean that cancer will develop, but knowing the gene is there can be life-saving information.
The process of genetic testing begins with the mammogram. The radiologist does a quick survey with the patient to ask about their health history and that of their family. Those answers help rate the risk for or predisposition to breast cancer, which may or may not prompt the option of genetic testing.
Genetic testing involves a saliva test for the patient, and it takes approximately a week to receive the findings.
“This grant offers us the opportunity to merge genetic testing with our current screening practices, which along with counseling, will give our patients the information they need to make informed decisions about their health,” said Robin Hearne, RN, TOBH director of cancer services.
Family heritage and incidence of cancer within a family offer key insights. “For instance, we know that ovarian cancer is related to the BRCA gene; therefore, it is now standard to test patients for that gene after they’ve been diagnosed,” said William Guenther, MD, TOBH oncologist. “If the gene is present, that means it may be present in other biologically related family members who also might want to consider genetic testing.”
“Traditionally, this type of testing along with genetic counseling hasn’t been readily available,” Guenther added. “We want to take care of this community, so if we can determine that a person is at greater risk for breast cancer, we can step up their level of surveillance.”
Leading the Way
“As the first in the Vidant Health system to manage those who are at greater risk for breast cancer, our oncology team will be utilizing processes that are really only in practice at larger institutions,” said Hearne, “We’ll be sharing our findings and processes with the other Vidant community hospitals so that this type of screening is available to others in Eastern North Carolina.”
The grant also offers the opportunity to gather more data about what may cause cancer. “While our incidence of cancer is not higher than the national rate, the proportion of familial clustering of breast cancer is higher, which means this is a great population to study for the role of genetics and environmental factors,” said Charles Shelton, MD, TOBH radiation oncologist. “Being awarded this grant is a nice recognition of our program and more importantly our team’s dedication to ultimately reducing mortality from breast cancer on the Outer Banks.”
Brainpower and Experience on Your Team
Twice a month, about a dozen team members from The Outer Banks Hospital and Medical Group, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, East Carolina University Pathology, and Eastern Radiology, gather for the Breast Tumor Board meeting. “It’s a huge benefit for our patients,” said Charles Shelton, MD, TOBH radiation oncologist, “because we have all the experts in the same room discussing every breast cancer case before, during, and after treatment. It offers the combined experience and knowledge of a proven team and results in better coordinated care for our patients.”