Specialty: Medical Oncology
Practice: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Westchester
Hospital: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Westchester
When she was still an intern in Pittsburgh, Chau Dang, MD, met her very first breast cancer patient: a 37-year-old mother of three who was admitted for complications with her metastatic breast cancer. “I remember being struck by her story, by how sick she was, how hard she had been fighting to stay healthy yet knowing she was dying and leaving a husband and children behind. It was very sad for me, and I really saw that it impacted more than just her,” Dang recalls. “Having had that experience, I felt like this was the field in which I could really make a difference.”
Fast-forward to today, and, as chief of MSKCC Westchester’s Medical Oncology Service, Dang has led two groundbreaking studies over the past decade which ultimately led to a change in the standard of care for HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer and HER2-positive early stage breast cancer. And though she is an undeniable force in the fight against breast cancer and has saved countless lives, that first patient left an indelible mark, a reminder that especially in the field of oncology, comfort care is just as important as the medical care. “That experience stayed with me. I think about her and her husband and children often,” Dang says. “Many of our patients do well, but some will not do so well. Those patients in particular will need our guidance and compassion.”
You were directly involved in two “game-changing” studies that have altered the way oncologists treat the most aggressive breast cancers today. How has this impacted the lives of your patients?
Over the past few decades, we have been able to work together as a research community to find important drugs and treatment options that have significantly improved the outcomes of patients with HER2-positive breast cancer.
In my own practice, I am witnessing many women with early-stage HER2-positive breast cancer who are cancer-free because they have had trastuzumab-based treatment with chemotherapy in the early setting. There is a very small risk of cardiac toxicity, but a significant benefit in efficacy with HER2-targeted therapy, and I am seeing so many of my patients with metastatic cancer coming back to me for years and years, living longer without any increased risk of heart problems, enjoying a good quality of life. I have seen patients who have had cancer in their liver, who don’t even have cancer visible on their scans while in treatment, and that’s fascinating.
What are the challenges and hurdles specific to breast cancer patients in Westchester County?
Many of our patients are older, and it’s incredibly hard for some of our older patients to drive in to the city for research clinical trials. The beautiful thing about the MSKCC Westchester site is that we’ve been able to open so many clinical trials here for our patients that otherwise would have been difficult for them to have access to due to geographic barriers.
What question should newly diagnosed breast cancer patients be asking their oncologist, but don’t?
I think patients often forget to talk about how they can maintain good health during cancer therapy, to ask about what else they can do to improve their outcomes. I always bring it up because it’s so important to stay as healthy and strong as possible. Exercise is important before, during, and after undergoing treatment. There is a lot of exciting research on this matter.
Are we winning the fight against breast cancer?
Yes, I think we are winning, but it’s going to take more time. It’s going to take more collaboration among all of us: the clinical staff, clinical researchers, scientists in the laboratory, and, of course, patients. We are continually grateful to our patients, as we can’t conduct any of these studies without them, who give us their time and dedication in allowing us to study these drugs in order to find more therapies for the greater good.