NEW YORK – Cancer is not often an easy topic of conversation for most people, but it should be. Avoiding the word, like many Greeks have done in the past and some continue to do today, doesn’t make the disease or its impact on people’s health go away.
The informative discussion presented by the Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) and the Hellenic Medical Society of New York (HMSNY) was held on Nov. 3 at the Wells Fargo Corporate Building Conference Center in midtown Manhattan.
The symposium focused on the current state of cancer prevention and treatment in America and was attended by members of AGAPW, professionals from various backgrounds, including many doctors from HMSNY, and the distinguished panelists.
The event was dedicated to the memory of Liz Tsaoussis, who passed away on September 12 after her four-year battle with ovarian cancer as AGAPW Founder and President Olga Alexakos said in her opening remarks.
Alexakos introduced Tsaoussis’ children Evangelia Moran and George Tsaoussis Carter who honored his mother’s memory with moving words about her inspiring strength and spirit during her cancer battle.
Given three months to live, Tsaoussis fought on and lived for four years, continuing to work at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and help others in spite of her diagnosis and failing health.
As Alexakos noted about her dear friend Liz, she lives on in her children and in the wonderful memories they shared.
Radiation oncologist Dr. Stella Lymberis moderated the discussion and participated along with panelists Dr. George Tsioulias, surgical oncologist; Dr. Evi Giannakakou, research scientist; Dr. Karen Burke Goulandres, dermatologist and research scientist; Dr. Ioannis Hatzaras, surgical oncologist; and Dr. Alice Zervoudakis, medical oncologist.
The topic of cancer has gained more attention recently. In his final State of the Union address, President Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden with leading a new national effort, a cancer moonshot.
The ultimate goal of Biden’s Moonshot initiative is to achieve a decade’s worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, in just five years.
The effort will hopefully increase the number of new breakthroughs in treatment through intensified research on immunotherapy, more clinical trials, and increased sharing of data to improve access to care and reduce disparities in care for all patients.
Dr. Lymberis pointed out how Greek culture affects the discussion of the disease. For years, Greeks would simply not say the word cancer, though the word itself is of Greek origin, or would refer to it with euphemisms.
Even today, there are Greeks and people of Greek descent who continue the practice, but not speaking about cancer and not even saying the word does nothing to raise awareness about prevention, treatment, and the advances that have increased survival rates dramatically in recent years.
Dr. Tsioulias spoke about the advances in breast cancer treatment, noting that 1 out of 7 women will be diagnosed.
Through the advancements in early detection, especially mammography, early breast cancer is treatable and curable.
He pointed out that mammography is almost 50 years old, and the latest 4th generation machines are digital and pick up lesions at earlier stages and the radiation associated with mammography is miniscule compared to even a few years ago.
About 50% of women get screened, Tsioulias observed, imagine what a success it would be if that number was 90%. Women over age 50 should be screened every year or every other year if they have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer.
Those with a family history should be screened ten years earlier than the youngest diagnosis in the family. Self-examinations are also vital for the early detection of breast cancer.
Surgical oncologist Ioannis Hatzaras pointed out that cancer surgery is a hundred years old and advancements in treatment have made surgery much less invasive so patients are able to recover faster and can proceed with other treatments administered by a medical oncologist.
Dr. Hatzaras noted that the right diagnosis is important since cancer is not one disease, but many different diseases.
The treatment can then be tailored to the patient and their specific type of cancer. He also emphasized that cancer is a complex illness that requires a team of doctors, a team of oncologists, working together to tailor the treatment plan.
As a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Dr. Zervoudakis treats patients with early stage and advanced stages of cancer, noting that doctors must be sensitive about the way they inform patients of a cancer diagnosis.
She noted that different types of chemotherapy are available to help patients live longer and maintain their quality of life. Clinical trials are also an important way to advance cancer treatment.
Immunotherapy uses the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer and it is effective for certain types of cancers, but not yet for all. More research needs to be done. Dr. Lymberis pointed out that cancer is transformative and how patients react to the diagnosis can vary widely.
Dr. Burke spoke about the different types of skin cancer and the importance of prevention and screening.
Sun exposure and smoking increase the chances of developing skin cancer and anyone who notices an abnormal, asymmetrical mole should see their dermatologist right away since early detection is the key to surviving this common form of cancer.
The President of HMSNY, Dr. George Liakeas and his wife Nicole, also attended the event as well as Gus Lambropoulos, a private mortgage banker at Wells Fargo who helped with providing the venue.