Komen boss comes for OHSU's Breast Cancer Research Conference.

COURTESY SUSAN KOMEN FOUNDATION  - Dr. Judy Salerno visits Portland to talk breast cancer research.

We caught up with Dr. Judith A. Salerno, President and CEO of the Susan G. Komen Foundation at the local affiliate’s downtown Portland offices. Dr. Salerno, who is based at Komen’s global headquarters in Dallas, is in town for OHSU’s 30th International Association for Breast Cancer Research Conference. The world’s leading breast cancer researchers will converge to discuss new break-throughs, and all the work that still lies ahead. Salerno oversees a global network of 100 Komen Affiliates which have funded more than 1.95 billion in local education, screening, and treatment programs.

Is this what you thought you’d be doing back when you were in college?

“I originally studied history and I was very interested in journalism in undergraduate studies. Entering medicine was a decision I made with a lot of thought. I turned 30 years old during my first year of medical school, and it was a big deal at the time, with just 20 percent of women in the classes. I also got married my first year in medical school and commuted between Washington D.C. and Boston my first year before we decided we should live in the same city. I had two kids during this time so I was constantly pregnant and constantly on call! A 36-hour shift at the hospital was typical then, and so I didn’t sleep for about nine years. I had wonderful neighbors who would bring my babies to the hospital so I could continue nursing them.”

What are breast cancer rates right now?

There are 245,000 new diagnoses a year, a small percentage of those are men. And interestingly since we started screening the numbers of deaths has not decreased. 40,000 people, mostly women, die each year of breast cancer. That’s a statistic we are intent on changing. We are going to put all of our power behind changing that. A third of the women who survive will have a recurrence. We don’t understand why it comes back, so we have a lot to learn and we are on the threshold of understanding the biology of breast cancer.

Who do you credit locally for some of the research?

“OHSU’s Dr. Joe Gray, one of our grantees, has been doing groundbreaking research on where cancer starts and why it occurs, and what is it about the environment. It’s foundational to a number of different approaches we’re supporting, and we are very indebted to him.”

Are breast cancer rates higher in the U.S. than other places?

“Well, the rates for low and middle income women are accelerating at about 2% a year in China. And in Africa it’s one of the most common causes of death among young women. Lack of access to early detection and treatment are reasons. And it’s also due to the adoption of western lifestyles and environment.

What are some important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

As someone famously said, and then someone else also said, it takes a village. There is so much more we can do together. No one of us alone is going to make progress. That means aligning our affiliates - there are 100 - and we are in 30 different countries. We have to be smart about how we use each and every dollar. I really think a lot about how can we be wise in our investment.

Which cities raise the most money for Komen?

Our biggest Race for the Cure event is in Rome. 75 percent of the funds raised stay in the community where they were raised. The Portland-Vancouver Affiliate here is a 30-milion dollar one, and 12 million goes to local research. That’s the strength of our organization. By and for community.

What’s your role at this conference?

I’m going to be learning a lot, and I make a lot of opening remarks! That’s what I say when my kids ask me what I do.

The conference focus is on early detection of lethal breast cancers. What’s new in this area?

Understanding the biology of lethal metastic cancers – the ones that kill people - and really intervening at an early stage is critical to saving lives. That takes a deep understanding of the biology. There are findings around young women – I know a 28 and a 32 year-old who died last year of breast cancer. What is it that can help us recognize who is at risk? It’s precision medicine writ large.

Women get mixed messages about when they should be screened for breast cancer. What’s Komen’s advice?

The fact is we don’t have enough information beyond age. The big risk factors are simply being a women and age, but we need more refined system for looking at risk. Understand your own risk: if you uncover something that’s not normal for you don’t let the doctor tell you that you’re too young. What every woman should do is sit down and talk about individual risk. It goes beyond family risk, it’s lifestyle, too. African-American women have a much higher mortality rate and get breast cancer at a younger age. The guidelines are all about average risk, but most women don’t know their own risk. And a lot of doctors don’t, either. One size doesn’t fit all. Being screened at 40 or 45 belies the fact that there is a continuum of risk. It’s really unknown. I saw a 12-year-old girl in China with breast cancer.

You’re a baseball fan. What’s your favorite team and player?

My favorite team is in whatever city I’m visiting, but I have the Texas Rangers and the Washington Nationals as tops. Both are contenders this year for post-season glory, I believe. My favorite player retired last year.

Derek Jeter?

Yes. I come from a long line of Yankees fans and if World War II hadn’t changed things my grandfather probably would have been a pro player. So I come by it honestly.

What: OHSU’s 30th International Association for Breast Cancer Research

When: August 4-7

Where: OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, 3303 S.W. Bond

Free public forum 2-5 p.m. Saturday, August 6

Confronting the Confusion: How to Think About Breast Cancer Screening

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