Pushing for prevention
Judi Hirshfield-Bartek is a surgical program nurse at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who has cared for breast cancer patients since the late 1970s. A longtime member of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, she recently received a Rachel Carson Advocacy Award from the Silent Spring Institute for her efforts to expand women’s access to high-quality care and to spur research into breast cancer prevention. ELIZABETH COONEY
Q. What inspires your work?
A. I have had the privilege and honor of caring over the years for many thousands of women diagnosed with breast cancer. I think about future generations and how do we prevent this disease from happening in the first place. I look to my daughter and I say, What is the legacy we are leaving you? The other piece is my mother died from breast cancer. I’m celebrating my 58th birthday this month. She was diagnosed at 58. She was very well-educated, she had access to the best quality care at the time — she had her breast exams and she had just had a mammogram — and she was diagnosed with locally advanced breast cancer.
Q. What is needed now in breast cancer research?
A. There needs to be an open dialogue between researchers and public policy makers and women with breast cancer on how research dollars are spent. Every day our congressmen make decisions about our care. Right now they are the biggest funder of breast cancer research. We should have a say in how those dollars are spent.
Q. Where do you think the focus should be?
A. Looking at ways to prevent breast cancer, where we tap into the Silent Spring model of an environmental connection to breast cancer, is an urgent need right now. A big example is the whole idea of exposure to toxins, to poisons that act like estrogen in our body. The problem is that industry is allowed to put bad things into our environment that could be harmful, with very little data before they expose individuals to the poison. It should be reversed. It shouldn’t be up to consumers to prove damage. It should be investigated first before it’s put into our environment.
Q. Your organization doesn’t do walks or promote pink ribbons.
A. The work we do is different. I get tired of hearing about “breast cancer awareness.’’ We’ve been hearing about breast cancer awareness ever since I can remember. What the heck has it gotten us?
Q. Hasn’t there been progress, too?
A. Mortality rates have fallen by a couple thousand over the last 10 years. I’m not making light of that. But think about the billions of dollars that are being spent. You’d think we could figure out something a little bit better.
Interview was condensed and edited.
Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at email@example.com.