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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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PYNK addresses the needs of young breast cancer patients

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Dr. Ellen Warner

TORONTO — Dr. Ellen Warner, a medical oncologist at Sunnybrook Hospital, says she is passionate about PYNK.

A breast cancer program for young women, PYNK is the first of its kind in Canada to address their special clinical, psychological, research and educational needs.

Warner said the seeds for the program were planted in 2004 at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, when she attended a session on young women with breast cancer.

“We discovered the unique issues these young women face, which the majority of women with breast cancer, who are on average in their 60s, do not have to deal with.

“Some of these issues are a higher risk of recurrence and death, infertility, early menopause, sexual dysfunction and body image problems, more fragile relationships with partners/husbands, small kids to take care of, financial pressures because of job loss or interruption of schooling.”

When the session was over, she said, she and her colleague decided that these women needed a special program.

One of the first obstacles they faced was raising enough money to hire a nurse specifically devoted to helping the women navigate the complex maze of appointments, referrals and tests, and support them and their family from the time of diagnosis through treatment and followup.

“The hospital administration loved the idea, but couldn’t spare a cent to make it happen. But when I shared my vision with Ricky Fitzerman, a Jewish breast cancer patient – who has since died – she got so excited she got together a group of friends and did an event at Beth Sholom Synagogue called Maj 4 Mammaries, which raised $65,000.”

In addition to the special support the PYNK program gives young women, she said, “we also perform a lot of research focusing on questions critical to this young age group, including a collaboration with Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Center, looking at the relationship between tumour biology, which is more aggressive in young women, and patient ethnicity.”

Another mandate of the program, she said, is to educate physicians about the need to diagnose cancer earlier in these women, and to educate other oncologists about how to manage the young women more appropriately.

“Unfortunately, there are still doctors out there who don’t bother referring these women for fertility preservation before they start chemo, because they [don’t realize these women] can freeze embryos or eggs and safely get pregnant later.”

The concept of the program has appealed to a number of physicians, she said, and last year she was contacted by Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel, who wanted to copy it.

They are now desperate, she said, because now that Fitzerman has died – a second event raised $100,000 – there is no one able to take on the task of fundraising.

“We had another funding source, but because of the economy, they will no longer be able to fund us. We are desperately hoping that PYNK will become someone’s pet charity.”

This article appears in the April 5 print issue of The CJN

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