Dr. Olufunmilayo I. Olopade

Unlocking the Mysteries of Breast Cancer

University of Chicago researcher advocates to help women of color fight the disease

By Joy E. Bennett

DON'T PANIC. A breast cancer diagnosis is NOT an automatic death sentence, says internationally renowned scientist and cancer specialist Dr. Olufunmilayo I. Olopade.

"It's a disease where we have found new treatments that are saving more lives," she says. "It is not the disease of your grandmother, where everyone who got breast cancer died."

It's also not just one disease, but several. "Breast cancer affects people differently, and the treatments should be just as individual," she says, advocating that all women, particularly African-American women should first assess their risk for the disease and then talk with their doctors to develop an individual strategy to lower the risk. "You have to individualize everything," she says.

The Sad History of Breast Cancer in the U.S

Once Black women are over the age of 50, they actually have a lower risk of breast cancer compared with European women--but they still have a risk. "Women with high risk factors should not wait until 50. For those women, we now have genetic tests; for some, we can offer MRI screening, beginning at age 25--that's why I say individualize your treatment."

Women who have a family history of breast cancer (specifically among close family members) have a higher risk for the disease, and some are taking specific medications while cancer-free to lower their risk.

One of Olopade's patients lost her mother and an aunt to breast cancer. At the Cancer Risk Clinic in Chicago, it was determined that the patient's risk was higher than average because of her family history. While she was cancer-free, Olopade recommended that she take Tamoxifen over a four-to five-year period as a preventive measure. Tamoxifen is a pill that slows or stops the growth of cancer cells. It interferes with estrogen activity in the body, and estrogen promotes the growth of breast cancer cells. "She is part of the new generation," says Olopade. "She is among the women shown to be at high risk for breast cancer, but [are] currently showing no signs of the disease [and] can take medications to lower their risk." While this procedure can reduce the risk of getting breast cancer by only about 50 percent, it is a path women prefer to take. Women who are high-risk are also taking advantage of the latest technologies, such as using an MRI to discover breast cancer early.

Olopade, a recipient of numerous fellowships, grants and awards, including the 2005 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," is a highly skilled hematology oncologist with proven expertise in cancer-risk assessment. An expert on individualized treatment for breast cancer, she is director of the Cancer Risk Clinic at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a professor of medicine and human genetics at the university. As an international leader in breast cancer research, she continues to help scientists gain a greater understanding of the disease. Her current research interests include identifying the source of ER-negative breast cancer--an aggressive form of the disease that is resistant to hormone therapy.

She preaches the gospel of early detection and is especially interested in reaching women of African descent, who are at higher risk for the more aggressive breast cancer and more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age.

"Be an advocate for your own health," she says, advising every woman to perform monthly self-exams and all women 50 and over to have regular mammograms. Recent studies have concluded that breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer in all populations, and that drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer in African-American women. "Studies suggest that more than four to five drinks weekly increase the breast cancer risk," she says. "We advise moderation."

Olopade, known to her friends and colleagues as Funmi (FOON-me), grew up in Nigeria and maintains close ties with cancer specialists there, returning frequently to teach, to do research and to visit. "I'm going back in October. There's so much need out there and so much we can learn. Most of our genes come from Africa, and whatever we can learn by studying the genetics and the environmental contribution on that continent will help all women, not just women of African ancestry," she says.

Olopade is married to Christopher Sola Olopade, a physician who specializes in the treatment of asthma and sleep disorders. They have three children and live near the University of Chicago.

Living near her workplace is the key to balancing her family and professional responsibilities, she says. She moved closer to her work, following a particularly challenging day of juggling family and home. "The day I was going to give up, I went to my boss and told him 'I can't do this,"' she says now. He told her she was living too far away--she lived in the suburbs then. "The solution for all working women is--to live 5 minutes from work!"

The support from the university and moving closer made it easier for her to continue her research. Working diligently in the laboratory and clinic, Olopade says she has been surprised at the worldwide attention her research has received. "I didn't know anyone was paying attention to what we were doing here and in Nigeria." She adds that she did not begin her award-winning career as a scientist and researcher to study disparities in this disease, but she is proud that her research is "galvanizing resources," both monetary and intellectual to attack breast cancer.

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White House Appointee for Member, National Cancer Advisory Board

Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade is the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine & Human Genetics, Associate Dean for Global Health, and Director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago. She is also a practicing clinician and Director of the University’s Cancer Risk Clinic. In her clinical work, Dr. Olopade is an authority on cancer risk assessment, prevention, and individualized treatment based on risk factors and quality of life. She also works with educators, doctors, government officials and pharmaceutical companies to improve access to quality education and medical care in low-income communities. Dr. Olopade has received numerous professional honors and awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the ASCO Young Investigator Award, the James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award, and the Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award, among others. She holds an M.B.B.S. from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, completed her residency in internal medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in hematology and oncology at the University of Chicago.