By Emily Davenport
When it comes to breast cancer in New York City, there are still disparities in care for communities of color. Dr. Wendy Wilcox, board-certified Obstetrician Gynecologist and the Clinical System Lead for Women’s Health, as well as Chairperson of Obstetrics and Gynecology for NYC Health + Hospitals/Kings County, has practiced obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health with a focus on achieving health equity and eliminating disparities across populations throughout her career.
“There were women’s care counselors that were placed in the dorms to help students get to the right resources in case of date rape, or to help inform about public health topics like STIs, how to stay healthy, or how to identify eating disorders. I became intrigued, not thinking that this would inform what I do later,” said Dr. Wilcox. “In that rotation, I learned that liked talking to my patients – you talk to the parents. I really enjoyed a lot of teaching and informing. As I was moving over to women’s health, it’s such a wide-open field – it just drew me in.”
Dr. Wilcox became an attending at Montefiore Medical Center, which led to her being director of her medical group and Assistant Professor in Ob-Gyn at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Recently, Dr. Wilcox was named Co-chair for Governor Cuomo’s Taskforce on Maternal Mortality and Disparate Racial Outcomes, which recommended the newly formed New York State Maternal Mortality Review Committee.
In her experience, Dr. Wilcox notices that those who are coming for their annual check-ups and mammographies are generally already engaged in their health and tend to follow the recommended practices. The problem comes with those who aren’t seeking treatment, particularly those who are African American or are of African descent, who are at a higher risk of dying from breast cancer.
“There is still a mistrust of the medical community for valid reasons,” said Dr. Wilcox. “Historically we can look back and see many many examples of how African Americans and immigrants sometimes have been the victims of some really horrific medical experiments. African American women are much more likely to die of breast cancer than Caucasian women because they are generally diagnosed at a later stage, and are more likely to have triple negative breast cancer. The gap is widening where there was a disparity before.”
Triple negative breast cancer, which shows no estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and excess HER2 protein accounts for 10-15% of breast cancer and has a low survival rate. It is common for African American women under the age of 40, or women with the BRCA1 mutation.
Multiple health organizations recommend that women start getting regular mammograms at the age of 40. In Dr. Wilcox’s experience, she finds that many women aren’t getting their mammograms because they think the procedure is more painful than it actually is. While in the age of COVID-19, Dr. Wilcox notes that her practice, as well as others throughout the city, are taking precautions to make sure a doctor’s visit is safe for patients.
While there are some genetic factors that can lead to the development of breast cancer, Dr. Wilcox says that maintaining your overall health can help reduce your risk factors for developing breast cancer. Certain things like quitting smoking and managing your weight can be beneficial, as well as staying away from processed foods can help reduce the risk for women at any age, while women of reproductive age can breastfeed to reduce their risk.
“The healthier one is in general, then the healthier one will be when looking at certain diseases,” said Dr. Wilcox. “Eating healthy, eating correct amounts of fruits and vegetables, exercising, trying to avoid refine and processed foods and sugars, reducing alcohol intake. There are some changes that happen during menopause — many gain weight and experience insomnia We may not be as concerned about our nutritional intake, the older one gets the higher the chances of one having breast cancer is a lifetime risk, and it increases in menopause. Being thoughtful of maintaining overall health is good for your breasts.”