Governor's Cancer Panel
Gov. Susana Martinez, right, and Dr. Cheryl Willman, center, look on as oncologist Dr. Melanie Royce and genetic counselor Lori Ballinger take part in a panel discussion at the UNM Cancer Center Oct. 22, 2013. 
Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

Gov. Susana Martinez tackled a subject both near and dear to her heart this week at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, where she led a discussion by a panel of specialists to mark National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Martinez, who lost both of her parents and a close friend to cancer, shared their stories, before hearing from panelists Dr. Melanie Royce, an oncologist, genetic counselor Lori Ballinger, Dr. Anna Voltura, a cancer surgeon and Dr. Christopher Demas, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon.

Martinez convened the panel Oct. 22 to hear updates on the latest cancer research, as well as information on diagnosing, treating and preventing breast cancer.

About 1,360 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in New Mexico each year, Martinez said, and 240 people die of the disease. And while death rates have declined over the past two decades, “Much more needs to be done in the fight against this life-threatening disease.”

Routine mammography improves the odds for early detection and timely treatment, Martinez reminded her listeners. She told of friend in Las Cruces who died after two mastectomies. “In her honor, I make my donations for breast cancer,” she said.

The governor was introduced by Dr. Cheryl Willman, the cancer center’s director and CEO, who told how the faculty has grown over the past decade, in part through recruiting respected researchers from other institutions.

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the state – and one of just 68 nationwide ­– the UNM Cancer Center sees 60 percent adult cancer cases and virtually all children cancer patients in the state, Willman said.  Each day, nearly 600 patients visit the facility – between 15,000 and 16,000 per year.

Royce told the 90 or so students, faculty and patient families in the audience about the importance of cancer prevention strategies, such as not smoking and not drinking to excess.

Breast-feeding for about one year has a protective effect against breast cancer, she said, while hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women should be pure estrogen, taken for no more than three years.

Royce also pointed out that men also ought to check for suspicious lumps, even though they account for a bit less than one percent of all breast cancer cases.  While it is rare in men, breast cancer is often caught at a later stage because most men don’t think to perform self-examinations. 

“Be aware of your body,” Royce said. “If you think something is not quite right, don’t be shy.”

Ballinger discussed the role heredity plays in breast cancer. It appears that only 10 percent of breast cancer patients have an inherited form of the disease. “Red flags” for the hereditary form includes having a strong family history of the disease and the presence of BRCA mutations.

As surgeons, Voltura and Demas emphasized that new procedures have reduced the disfiguring side effects of breast cancer surgery, such as microsurgical reconstruction and nipple-sparing mastectomies. “There are many new, exciting things that we’re participating in together,” Demas said.

Martinez pointed out that simple, common sense measures, like visits to the gynecologist and regular mammograms, are not embraced by everyone.

Her mother, who rarely went to a gynecologist,  “was from the old school,” Martinez said. “Those were the kinds of things you didn’t talk about. It was just part of the culture.”

The event concluded with the presentation of a stunning 3-foot-tall wooden vase handcrafted by Donald Powell, who lost his wife Sylvia to breast cancer last summer.

“I made it to honor my wife and the millions of women worldwide who suffer from this terrible disease,” Powell said.