In recognition of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Shari Damast, Associate Professor of Therapeutic Radiology and Chief of the Gynecologic Radiotherapy Program, shares her motivation for treating patients with cervical cancer.
As we honor cervical health awareness month, what do you feel is the most important message to share with our patients?
It can be scary to receive any kind of cancer diagnosis, but in recent years, treatment options for cervical cancer have really advanced—not only are patients surviving—but also the newest treatments have limited their side effects enabling our patients to go about their daily lives much easier than ever.
It also bears mentioning that cervical cancer disproportionately affects women of color, and this doesn’t get enough attention. Many of the patients I see are from minority backgrounds. It’s important that everyone understands that cervical cancer is treatable, and regardless of one’s background or past experiences with the medical system, with the right treatment, outcomes can be very encouraging.
How do you collaborate with the gynecological oncology team at Smilow Cancer Hospital to care for your patients?
One of the things I enjoy most about working at Smilow Cancer Hospital is the amazing colleagues that are drawn to work here, all of whom are experts at the top of their field. Cervical cancer requires a collaborative team approach. On a given day, our team of dedicated doctors might call me to offer an opinion on a patient they are seeing, even when then they are mid-surgery, to make sure each patient gets the best radiotherapy.
When the radiation and gynecological oncology services jointly admit a patient into the hospital for inpatient brachytherapy (internal radiation treatment delivered with applicators implanted directly inside the cervical tumor), we have an entire group of trained experts from the physicists to the nurses, surgical staff, technologists and physicians who all make sure the patient is at the center of their day, and who are incredibly dedicated to make sure that the treatments are delivered with precision and compassion.
We are the only center in Connecticut that offers a particular kind of treatment (interstitial brachytherapy) guided by MRIs, so we often have patients who travel from around the state or region to come here. It’s really great to work with colleagues who are dedicated to making sure these patients are well cared for and comfortable while they are getting the most advanced therapy.
Lastly, cervical cancer, as well as other gynecological cancers, can present their own challenges, which can be frightening and personal, including lasting effects on reproductive and sexual health. Yale is a global leader in women’s sexual health, and we have a clinic comprised of psychologists, menopause, and sexual health experts entirely dedicated to women to help them transition back into their lives after they have been through cancer treatment.
I was recently with a young patient in clinic who was hesitant about treatment for her new cancer diagnosis, and she started to cry. She had questions about impacts of treatment on her fertility and sexual health. She told me she was scared and that she had no one in her life to talk to about what she was going through. One of the advantages of coming to a major cancer hospital is that no one will go through a cancer diagnosis and treatment alone. We have navigators and social workers who have dedicated their lives to understanding how to help patients and family members through a cancer diagnosis, who were called in to support her. At the same time, I was on the phone with her surgeons figuring out a treatment that would work best for her lifestyle and changing it to make sure she was comfortable with the final plan and that her needs were addressed. What’s so rewarding is that we were all on the same page. I was grateful to the surgeons, the surgeons were grateful to me, and we all wanted to help this young woman through her treatment with as much support as possible. The people who work at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center really care.
Mentorship is an important part of cancer research—what do you feel is the best way, or your favorite way to keep your team engaged and learning from one another?
Brachytherapy (internal radiation treatment delivered with applicators implanted directly inside the cervical tumor) is a critical aspect of cervical cancer treatment and requires a particular set of hands-on skills. To make sure that our trainees understand exactly how to deliver it, we have mannequins that we train on. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to participate in a hands-on brachytherapy workshop overseas, helping to educate trainees in other parts of the globe. I am involved in a national educational group, with a network of mentors in the field, working to train the next generation of brachytherapists to help assure that patients with cervical cancer everywhere have access to the best treatment.