Proactivity stressed as Edgecombe County ranks among highest breast cancer mortality rates in USA

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TARBORO, N.C. (WNCN) – Edgecombe County is home to one health statistic no one wants. It has among the nation’s highest mortality rates for breast cancer.

“I have seen more advanced cases of breast cancer in this region than I have seen in the rest of my career,” said Dr. Kelly McAlarney.

McAlrney is a radiologist at Nash Breast Care Center in Rocky Mount. 

“It’s essential that we find cancers when they’re small. That what we trying to do here. We’re not going to prevent them, but if we can find them when they are small, we can save lives,” McAlarney said.

Mable Harrell is a chemotherapy patient. One day, she was surrounded by music played by a guitarist while a therapy dog made its rounds.

“They need to get a mammogram and they need to make sure they get a mammogram check. I was one that didn’t,” Harrell said. “So, I fell into the hole where I needed help and I needed it severely.”

She didn’t get a regular mammogram so she’s now fighting for her life. Her oncologist, Dr. Jay Manikkam, said too many women in Edgecome and Nash counties have similar stories.

“Previous cancer surveys and statistics have shown that the Nash (and) Edgecombe counties consistently ranks higher in breast cancer mortality. Probably it’s in the top-15 counties in the country, and we are working our best to bring it down,” he said. 

The region is among the country’s highest in triple-negative breast cancer, which is considered to be among the most aggressive malignancies. Part of that is attributed to lack of awareness, poverty, and race.

“The fact that this region also has a higher proportion of African American patients is also something to consider because triple-negative breast cancer is more aggressive when it happens in African-American patients,” said Manikkam.

Nash Breast Care Center’s partnership with a number of organizations allows it to not turn away any patient regardless of insurance or financial hardship. The center also doesn’t require a referral from a primary doctor. 

Manikamm believes keeping patients close to home is also very important in their treatment. He has begun a new clinical trial that targets patients with triple-negative breast cancer. The trial includes the integration of immunotherapy with chemotherapy before surgery.

Immunotherapy will also continue after surgery in hopes of improving survival.

“It keeps me going because I know that I’m helping them. I was just sharing this with one of my patients. Last week was not such a good week,” Manikkam said. “We lost a couple of patients to their battle against cancer. But, this week, two of my patients are doing excellent and they are beating the odds, so that keeps us going.”

Their overreaching message is that women over 40 get a mammogram every year.

“The statistics of going from a stage one, where we can save your life, to stage two, three and four, where we have much less of a chance of doing that, no matter how the patient is treated after we find it,” McAlarney said.

“Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, I’ll be having surgery and hopefully I can say I beat it I beat it,” Harrell added.

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