When Dr. Jeffrey Weitzel was preparing to launch his medical career back in 1990, he switched from oncology and treatment of cancer and blood-related diseases to the then new field of genetics-based diagnosis. Today, as director of City of Hope's Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics in the Department of Population Sciences, Dr. Weitzel is extremely satisfied with the choice he made, and his team has made significant contributions to our understanding of the hereditary forms of cancer and how to use that knowledge to more effectively screen for and prevent cancer. With a goal of addressing disparities in access to cancer screening and prevention, Latina women with breast cancer in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere are among the primary beneficiaries of the work he and his colleagues have conducted over the past decade.
"Latinas in general are at lower risk of breast cancer than most women," Dr. Weitzel explains. "But they have a higher tendency for genetic-based breast cancer, which generally strikes at a younger age. And because they are often underinsured or uninsured, they tend to have it diagnosed far later, when it is more difficult to treat. A lack of cultural awareness on the part of healthcare workers is also part of the problem, as is their own lack of information about preventative care."
He became involved in this area through a recommendation from a colleague in a serendipitous turn of events: "My friend, Dr. Nancy Feldman, works at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center County hospital which serves a heavily-Hispanic population. Around 2000, she told me that a number of young Latinas were coming in and being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. With genetic counseling and testing and family histories, we can be in a much better position, not only to treat their immediate problem, but also to give them guidance in preventing future cancers. But in those days, genetic testing was not covered by Medicaid, so even those with family histories of cancer were not getting tested."
'We wondered, 'If we build a center where they can be tested, would they use it?' We...