University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

We are happy to announce the launch of our new Abramson Cancer Center website.

Please stay connected to our Focus On Cancer blog by visiting us there.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nutrition for Breast Cancer Survivorship (Video)

June 3 is the National Cancer Survivorship Day - a day on which cancer survivors celebrate life after a cancer diagnosis. Healthy eating after cancer treatment is important for weight control and nutrition.

This video from the Joan Karnell Cancer Center takes a look at nutrition and survivorship after treatment for breast cancer is complete.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New Uses for Old Drugs to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

Christine Wilson, cancer survivor, shares her experiences from the Abramson Cancer Center’s Focus On Pancreatic Cancer Conference. In this blog, she recaps the conference. You can view the conference in its entirety, including presentations here.

A Day of Cautious Optimism

"I have been to everyone of these pancreatic cancer conferences, and this is the most hopeful one yet."

These are the words of the wife of a six-year survivor of pancreatic cancer.  They speak to a genuine sense of cautious optimism that pervaded the annual Focus on Pancreatic Cancer Conference sponsored by Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center.  This new hope, grounded within innovative research, doesn't replace realism about the heavy toll pancreatic cancer takes and the persistently disappointing outcomes for most patients.  Patients, caregivers and physicians share an understanding that pancreatic cancer remains one of the most difficult forms of cancer to diagnose early and treat effectively. 

For the first time, though, there is real excitement about progress on a number of fronts, including better understanding of the biology and genetics of pancreatic cancer, improved technology for imaging and surgical interventions, and a more proactive approach to identifying individuals and families who are at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.  These aggressive approaches to diagnosing and treating pancreatic cancer are beginning to yield small, but real improvements in survival rates. 

Pancreatic cancer experts from all clinical disciplines discussed the promise of the future and the work under way at Penn to find better ways to diagnose and treat this disease to an audience of 200 patients and caregivers.

Innovative Research:  "Seeing Cancer Differently"

Starving Cancer Cells

Abramson Cancer Center Director, Chi Van Dang, MD, PhD, welcomed attendees, providing a short, clear primer on the complex biology of how pancreatic cancer cells grow, divide and invade neighboring tissue. The key to the future, he said, is "in seeing cancer differently." 

One key area of inquiry for pancreatic cancers is in studying the way these cells utilize energy – in effect what and how they feed themselves. The theory, Dr. Dang, explained, is that normal cells take in nutrients to divide, and then stop when the process is complete.  Cancer cells, on the other hand, are "addicted to nutrients," constantly gorging on them so that they can continue to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.  They may also use different "food" than normal cells. 

One very exciting line of research is directed at this "addiction model" of pancreatic cells with the goal of basically starving cancer cells to death by depriving them of the nutrients they require.  The concept sounds simple, the implementation is far more complex, but the potential for developing targeted, metabolically based therapies is very real.

New Uses for Old Drugs

Most people think of new cancer treatments as developing new drugs. But in at least two cases, drugs that have been used to treat other conditions for many years are showing promise for treating pancreatic cancer. 

Led by researcher Peter O'Dwyer, MD, Penn is launching a clinical trial for cancer to test the efficacy of chloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria. Research has shown that chloroquine is highly effective in inhibiting what is known as autophagy, the ability of cells to replenish needed nutrients by eating themselves until they are able to find new sources of nutrition.  Pancreatic cancer cells are known to have a very high rate of autophagy and the hope is that chloroquine will stop that from happening and in the process slow down or stop the growth of the cancer. 

Metformin is another drug that is being "repurposed," finding new uses as an anti-cancer agent.  Metformin is traditionally used to treat diabetes.  It inhibits one step in the metabolic process and thus slows down the ability of cells to grow and divide. Like chloroquine, metformin is known to be safe.
Both of these drugs provide real hope for developing new therapies that will in effect cut the fuel line for pancreatic cancer cells.  In Dr. Van Dang's words, this research focuses on the "many differences between cancer cells and normal cells," differences that are becoming the basis for innovative clinical approaches to treating pancreatic cancers.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer clinical trials offered at the Abramson Cancer Center.

View the Focus On Pancreatic Cancer Conference to learn more about treatment options for pancreatic cancer at the Abramson Cancer Center.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

10 Tips for Talking to Kids About Cancer

Ruth Steinman, MD, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. In this blog, Dr. Steinman discusses how to tell children about a cancer diagnosis and offers suggestions on how to make the conversation easier.

Children who are old enough to speak need to be told about a cancer diagnosis. Begin by identifying your illness by name without confusing euphemisms. Discuss how it will be treated and what will happen to you during treatment (losing your hair, feeling tired and so on). Tell them who will be taking them to soccer practice, cooking their meals and how their day-to-day lives may change.

Don’t let them overhear it
Prevent your children from hearing the news of your cancer by overhearing. Let them know what is happening and what to expect directly from you. Tell them you will let them know any new information that comes up.

Welcome all questions warmly
Your child needs to know they can talk to you about any topic. Be available to talk about what is on their minds at times when they are likely to talk to you such as in the car, while doing an activity or at bedtime.

Try to tease out the “real” question your child wants to ask
“What are you wondering about?”

Often the real worry is something much more concrete and readily addressed. For example, children may ask: “Will you be better by summertime?” Rather than a question about prognosis or a request for a guaranteed cure, they may be asking if they will go to summer camp as usual. Remember: not every question requires immediate or detailed answers. “That is a good question. Let me think about it/discuss it with daddy/ask my doctor/ and get back to you.”

Respect children who wish not to talk
You can still provide basic information in order to prevent confusion or surprises even with children who don’t want to talk. Check in from time to time and ask what they are hearing and make sure they are getting the right amount of information. Instead of asking: “How are you feeling about Mommy’s cancer?” ask: “How is it working out with Katie’s mom picking you up from practice?”

Don’t let your child worry alone
Kids often hear or read frightening information. Tell your children you understand that they may feel more comfortable talking about what is worrying them with someone else and that you will arrange this if that is the case.

Try to maintain your child’s usual schedule
Assign a point person for each child. Post schedules and calendars for caregivers. Keep the channels of communication open with key caregivers who provide appropriate emotional support and ensure your children’s routines are disrupted as little as possible.

Let your kid’s teachers know who they can go to if they are having a hard time. Make sure the teachers do not share the information with other children in the class. School should be free of cancer talk unless your children initiate the discussion. Ask the teachers not to share information about cancer or about someone else who went through a similar situation. This information, while given with well meaning, can be burdensome to children.

Carve out protected time for the family
Turn off telephones and tell friends and family not to visit during these times so that your children have your full attention without distractions. Ask about their day. Try to use this time to focus on the children and not on your illness.

Have support around hospital visits
Hospital visits often help children feel less worried. Have extra support people accompany your children to the hospital to allow you to adjust the length of the visit to what your children can comfortably manage. Younger children should have toys available. When visits are not possible, cards, drawings and such are helpful. Be sure to have an adult check in with each child after the visit to answer questions about what they saw or heard which might have been confusing or worrisome.

Be honest
Don’t lie, no matter how much you think a lie will protect them. Children are less anxious when they can trust that the information they get from you is true. We all want to promise our children that we will never die. It is important not to make promises you may not be able to keep.

Talking to children about end-of-life
Acknowledge that sometimes people die of cancer. Reinforce the plan for your treatment and the hope that it will keep the illness from getting worse. The most important worry for children is who will look after them if something happens to you. You need to assure them that no matter what happens, they will be cared for.

After Death
Children need to know they are loved and why they are loved. It is also important to:
  • Maintain a routine for kids of all ages.
  • Include children in rituals but explain beforehand what will happen: the coffin, people crying, that they can leave at any time and this is who will go with them (family or friend).
  • As time goes on, demonstrate that it is ok to discuss good and bad memories. Help your children find a way to maintain an emotional, internal connection.
It can often be difficult to tell when children need professional intervention. Certainly if a child asks to speak with someone outside of the family, he or she should be helped to do so. Symptoms that may indicate a need for intervention include depressed mood or high anxiety for more than a couple of weeks, changes in appetite and/or sleep, risk-taking behavior, problems with school (academic or behavioral) and substance abuse. Any expression of suicidal thinking needs to be taken seriously and evaluated by a professional despite the resistance in doing so.

Read “Speaking with Children about Cancer”

Monday, May 28, 2012

Yoga for Cancer Patients

yoga classes for cancr patients in philadelphia

Michelle Stortz, CYT, CMT, MFA is a yoga therapist, massage therapist and movement educator. She specializes in yoga therapy for cancer and works with cancer survivors in the Philadelphia region.

Yoga has recently been the subject of much attention from the medical community as the field begins to confirm its many benefits. For those undergoing cancer treatment, yoga is especially helpful in managing side effects of cancer as well as some of the more difficult emotional and mental aspects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

There is a common misconception that yoga is limited to stretching and practicing difficult poses. In truth, long before the physical aspect of yoga developed - largely what we see today - yoga was concerned with meditation and the achieving of heightened states of consciousness. Related breathing techniques have also long been a part of the yoga toolbox.

These tools and techniques, in combination with movement, are proving invaluable in reducing stress, pain, fatigue, insomnia, depression and anxiety; improving both coping skills and overall quality of life.

The methodology behind the yoga class I teach in partnership with the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital called “Yoga Therapy for Cancer Patients” emphasizes the stress reduction aspects of yoga.

Benefits of yoga for cancer patients

Gentle movement, breathing techniques, meditation, deep relaxation and imagery work to guide patients to an energized yet calm state of peaceful awareness. As fatigue is the number one side effect of cancer treatment, patients spend approximately 60 to 75% of class time in chairs, with some choosing to remain in the chair for the entire class.

Movements can be modified to accommodate all types of limitations.

In addition to these classic elements of yoga, “Yoga Therapy for Cancer Patients” includes concise lectures on the physiology behind yoga and arms patients with information and an understanding of yoga’s workings.

For instance, meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a term coined by researcher Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School to describe a phenomenon in which the following physiological changes take place:

  • Metabolism decreases
  • Heart rate lowers
  • Muscles tension is reduced
  • Breath rate slows
  • Blood pressure decreases
  • Chemicals associated with stress, cortisol and adrenalin, are reduced

When patients know these benefits of yoga, they are inspired to practice more frequently.

These yoga techniques affect the body by quieting down the sympathetic nervous system and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” process of the limbic brain. It sends adrenalin and cortisol through the body, which in turn sends blood to the extremities - arms and legs - leaving the organs at the core of the body functioning with less blood and interfering with their efficient functioning. In this situation the digestive and reproductive systems are suppressed and the immune system altered.

The parasympathetic nervous system tells the body that everything is okay, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the organs so they can operate efficiently. If stress is prolonged and the body is continuously exposed to the stress hormones, one becomes at risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity and memory impairment.

Register for yoga

Registration for yoga classes at Pennsylvania Hospital is recommended.

Dates: Tuesdays
Time: 5:30 to 7 pm
Location: Old Pine Community Center, 401 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, PA

To learn more, or to register for yoga therapy classes, email at Michelle or call 215-242-1366.

Friday, May 25, 2012

For 6 Weeks, I Had Cancer

Melanie Gaffney is a proud childhood cancer survivor, and a contributor to the Focus On Cancer blog. Today she is cancer-free, but lives with the after effects of her cancer treatments. 

As a cancer survivor, relapse and second cancers are always in the back of your mind. The thought of cancer coming back doesn’t rear its ugly head daily, but sometimes the idea of getting cancer again can stop you dead in your tracks.

I have been cancer free for a very long time. I’ve had a couple of scares, but have always come out on top. Just this past January, during a routine cardiology visit, my incredible physician, Dr. Joseph Carver, discovered a lump on my thyroid. It wasn’t visible to the eye on the outside, but it was there, just under the skin.

I sat there at the end of my exam and stared, listening to him tell me about this lump, and all I could hear was “cancer, cancer, cancer.” As he spoke, all I could think was: “How will I prepare my kids? How will I afford childcare during treatments? Will my 5-year-old son be scared and understand? Will I lose my hair?”

Dr. Carver’s words would penetrate my thoughts every now and then, but for the most part he was just a blur.

Learn more about the Abramson Cancer Center's Living Well After Childhood Cancer program.
Once I mentally came back to the room, I sat and listened. He told me: “Melanie, people find lumps and nodules on their thyroids all the time, and they turn out to be nothing. But, with your personal history, your chances of having cancer again are higher than average.”

He told me I’d need a biopsy, and as he discussed the next steps, I listened intently to every word. I knew that I had to do everything just right to make sure that if it was in fact cancer, I had the knowledge I needed to take care of myself and those around me.

After my appointment it was time to start to make the calls to my family to tell them what was going on. They weren’t easy calls to make - even though I only knew it was a lump –we all knew my chances of what it could be.

Because of my scheduling preferences, my appointment for a biopsy wasn’t for six weeks. I can honestly say, without hesitation, that they were the longest six weeks of my adult life. I went through the motions, work, home, kids, etc. without always focusing on it, but I would break down in tears every day, every single day.
For those six weeks I had cancer, or, I might as well have.

I have incredible people in my life, that change their plans to accommodate my appointments, who are there for me as soon as a I need them, who blindly support me and my family. My friends actually organized a dinner during those six weeks, to just celebrate our friendships and lives together. At that point, I knew that if I did have cancer again, I was going to be just fine regardless of the outcome.

The day came for my biopsy, I was ready; emotional but not scared, strong but humble. I was ready for whatever the results were going to be.

I got my results: 100 percent benign.

I had cancer for six weeks – in my head and in my soul and in my heart, I had cancer. But now, knowing I don’t, I am ready for whatever else being a survivor may throw at me.

I have a feeling this may be just the beginning, that more scares will come and there may be a time where I am not as lucky with the outcome, but until then….
I don’t have cancer.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Benefits of Produce

The produce section of your grocery store can provide nutrition, variety and a lot of cancer-fighting foods.

In this video, Debra DeMille, MS, RD, CSO, registered dietitian and nutritional counselor at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center discusses produce, gives tips for choosing produce and offers ideas to get a variety of cancer-fighting nutrients into your diet.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Does cancer run in your family?

Sandy Cohen is VP, Volunteer Programs for FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. In this blog post she discusses the importance of knowing one’s family medical history to understand if cancer runs in the family, as well as an exciting awareness event on May 31, 2012.

After losing my 38-year-old grandmom and 54-year-old mom to breast cancer, I grew up believing that breast cancer was undoubtedly in my future. Today, I feel extremely fortunate that I discussed my family’s health history with the doctors at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. They assessed my risk and provided me information about how to reduce it. I believe that the potentially life-saving information they shared with me is a true gift, and I would like to share some of it with you.

How do you know if cancer runs in your family?

Look at your family (both on your mom and dad’s side) and see if you or any family member has had:
  • Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer at any age
  • Breast cancer at age 50 or younger
  • Breast cancer in both breasts at any age
  • Both breast and ovarian cancer
  • Male breast cancer

Also, look to see if more than one family member on the same side of the family has had any of these cancers:
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian or fallopian tube cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

If any of these apply to you, I encourage you to seek guidance and support from a genetic counselor at Penn's MacDonald Cancer Risk Evaluation Center,  join our local group and join us for this special event to learn more.

Celebrate the Women in Your Life - An Exclusive Movie Screening of “FIVE”

Cancer survivors, previvors, family, friends and the general public are invited to enjoy a fun evening of drinks, hors d'oeuvres, desserts and fabulous raffle prizes while mingling and watching this incredible movie "FIVE."

Jennifer Aniston on the set of FIVE
Directed by Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys and starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, this groundbreaking original movie is an anthology of five short films exploring the impact of breast cancer on people's lives. "FIVE" will make you laugh and cry, and it will remind you to celebrate all the women you love!

Time: 6:30 to 9 PM
Date: Thursday, May 31, 2012
Location: Smilow Center for Translational Research (adjacent to the Perelman Center), 3400 Civic Center Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Registration: -->  
Cost: FREE ($25 suggested donation)

In addition, Catrina and Nicole Armstrong, Susan Domchek, MD, Carlette Knox, Beth Weiner Pfeiffer and Annette Ramke will be honored for their incredible help in raising awareness, sharing hope and making a difference to so many in the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer community.

Any questions, please contact .

Support for this event is generously provided by Mariann and Robert MacDonald.

FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Founded in 1999, FORCE provides serves thousands of families with support, education, advocacy, awareness and research specific to the needs of this community. For more information, please visit and visit the Facebook page at to interact with the FORCE community.

Learn about the Basser Research Center for BRCA1&2.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Celebrating Melanoma Survivors

In recognition of Melanoma Survivors everywhere, the Abramson Cancer Center presents this inspirational video.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Personalized Approach to Treating Cancer

Ursina Teitelbaum, MD, is a Penn Medicine assistant professor of medicine and medical oncologist specializing in gastrointestinal cancer, caring for older adults and symptomatic management of cancer patients.  In the second of two posts, Dr. Teitelbaum discusses Penn Medicine’s personalized approach to gastrointestinal treatment.

The era of personalized medicine is truly “here and now” in the field of colorectal cancer therapy at Penn Medicine, and it is exciting to work in a cancer center that has so much to offer in this regard.  Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center is devoted to tissue banking and studying strategies to further individualize cancer treatment. When it comes to cancer treatment, one size truly does not fit all.

Beyond traditional therapies, Penn has a very active program in experimental therapeutics or early phase clinical trials — some of which are very well suited for patients with gastrointestinal malignancies like colorectal cancer.  These early phase studies offer therapy for patients who have exhausted standard options and are fit enough to pursue innovative, experimental regimens.

Outside of clinical trials, I also work closely with specialty-trained surgical oncologists who are able to perform advanced surgeries, such as hepatic metastatectomies, thoracic resections, and HIPEC (hyperthermic Iintraperitoneal chemotherapy).  Penn also provides liver-directed therapies offered by interventional radiologists such as transarterial chemoembolization, radioembolization and radiofrequency ablation.

The Roberts Proton Therapy Center is able to deliver pinpoint radiation to tumors with decreased radiation toxicity to the surrounding tissues – this is particularly relevant for patients with liver cancer as the liver is a very sensitive organ.

All of these treatments can be combined to help patients live longer with a better quality of life, and may help patients take breaks from chemotherapy.

Caring for patients – beyond medicine

Beyond treatment, Penn’s cancer physicians strive to care for patients and their loved ones as a whole, recognizing that everyone in the family and friend network is affected by the illness.  I’m grateful that Penn offers nurse navigation, cancer counseling and supportive services, as well as excellent nutrition support.  I work closely with dedicated GI cancer nutritionists who help monitor patients through every phase of their therapy. Penn also has very well established survivorship programs to help patients during their cancer therapy and beyond.

I feel very fortunate to have many therapy options to offer patients.  Whenever I meet a new patient in my clinic, I actively review all the resources available and how best to sequence his or her care.  Every new patient is discussed in a multidisciplinary conference with the medical oncology group, radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists  — and interventional radiology and pathology is often in attendance as well as other support caregivers. 

This team approach helps open every possible avenue for every patient.

The future of colorectal cancer care

During the past 10 years, I have seen colorectal cancer become more treatable due to the discovery and approval of many new chemotherapies for colorectal cancer and biologic antibody therapies.  Even if a patient’s disease isn’t curable, I am confident that it is treatable.  Physicians used to measure life expectancy in months with metastatic disease, but now patients live years – and these are good years.

I collect magnets from all of the distant ports of call that my patients visit as a symbol of the full and active lives they are living, even when undergoing active therapy. Together we celebrate every birthday and joyful life event that these advanced therapies enable my patients to enjoy.

Learn more about the Abramson Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Cancers Program.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cancer-Fighting Recipe: Springtime Vegetable Slaw

Warmer weather is a perfect time to eat light, and take advantage of vegetables that pack a healthy punch.

This recipe for vegetable slaw's big ingredient is celery. Celery is a good source of vitamin A and contains vitamin C, B1, B2; calcium; iron; magnesium; phosphorus; and potassium.

Celery contains polyacetlyenes, this compound has an anti-inflammatory affect on blood.

Celery leaves work well as a substitution for parsley, and fennel contains phytochemicals that have been shown to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and digestive properties.

Springtime Vegetable Slaw

Servings: 8
  • 1 package(16 oz) of shredded broccoli or cabbage slaw
  • 1 cup shredded carrots (about 2-3 medium carrots)
  • 1 cup thinly sliced fennel or celery
  • 1 large red pepper, julienned
  • 2 small zucchini, julienned
  • ½ c canola or soybean oil mayonnaise
  • ¼ c fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • ½ tsp grated orange rind
  • 1 tsp celery seed
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Combine the first five ingredients in a large bowl
  2. Combine the mayonnaise and the rest of the ingredients until coated thoroughly
  3. ~ to “kick it up a notch” try adding prepared horseradish in lieu of the celery seed, orange juice, and orange rind
1 cup serving: 145 calories, 4 grams of fat, 4 grams protein, 5 grams fiber, 120 mg sodium, 14 grams of carbohydrates

Recipe from Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter C Willet

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Know the Signs of Skin Cancer

Rachel Woods, RN, is a nurse with surgical dermatology at Penn Medicine. 

February is National Cancer Prevention month and it’s a great time to remind everyone about the simple guidelines that can prevent or decrease the risk of certain types of cancer.

Along with routine screening exams such as mammograms and colonoscopies, your healthcare provider may recommend checking your skin for any new or changing lesions, moles, or marks.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.

The good news is that skin cancer is the easiest to treat and cure if detected early. And, although most people know if they are at a higher risk for skin cancer, some may not.

There are three types of skin cancer:
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma
Here are some risk factors for skin cancer:
  • Red or blond hair
  • Fair skin
  • A blistering sunburn early in life
  • Prone to sunburn
  • Any tanning bed use
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors for work or recreation
Historically, skin cancer was most commonly diagnosed in older adults. More cases are now being seen in younger people and an alarming increase of melanoma in young women that is likely associated with tanning bed use.

How to look for skin cancer

It is never too early to start screening your skin. Take a few minutes to look at yourself in a full-length mirror and use a handheld to visualize areas hard to see. You should be familiar with the moles and freckles on your body. Take note of anything that is changing in size, shape, or color. Also watch for pink shiny or scaly lesions that may bleed easily and don’t heal.

Now that you know to give your skin a good look on a regular basis, it’s important to know sun protection. There are three things everyone needs to remember when it comes to precautions outdoors:
  1. Seek shade.
  2. Cover up.
  3. Use sunscreen.

Shade is important particularly when the sun is at its strongest. Typically this is between the hours of 11am and 4 pm. If the sun is at its strongest, your shadow will be shorter than you.

Covering up with clothing is a good start, but all clothing is not created equal when it comes to sun protection.

Clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) is specifically designed to protect from both UVA and UVB rays yet is cool and comfortable. These garments are perfect for children and anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors. Be aware that the efficacy of these garments decreases over time as the garment is worn and washed.

You can add UPF to regular cotton clothing by adding a sun guard detergent to your wash ( This adds an invisible shield to your cotton clothing that bumps a regular white cotton T-shirt to UPF 30 through 20 washes.

Also, keep your eyes safe. Look for sunglasses that block 100 percent of UV rays and wear them even if your contact lenses have UV protection. To further protect your eyes in addition to scalp, ears, and neck, wear hats with a wide brim.

Using sunscreen is not a new recommendation. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently changed the rules about sunscreen labeling to help consumers understand what they are buying.

Sunscreen labels must be accurate and cannot claim to do things the product hasn’t been proven to do. Be wary of older products that claim to be “water or sweat proof,” offer “instant protection,” or “block” the sun’s harmful rays.

These are examples of unproven claims are no longer allowed on packaging.
When purchasing sunscreen, look for:
  • Broad spectrum sunscreen (or the ingredient “avobenzone”), which means that it covers both UVA and UVB rays.
  • No less than 30 SPF, as recommended by The American Academy of Dermatologists.
  • Water-resistant products if you will be swimming or sweating.

How to apply sunscreen

  1. Apply liberally to skin at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. If you are in a bathing suit “liberally” means enough to fill a shot glass.
  2. Reapply at least every two hours or after you swim.
  3. Don’t forget your lips! Use an SPF 30 lip balm to keep this sensitive skin protected.

Free skin cancer screening

Take advantage of Penn Dermatology’s annual free skin cancer screening clinic on Saturday, May 19. Call 215-662-2737 to make an appointment now.

Remember, sun safety is year-round. Sign up for a free skin cancer screening today.
Melanoma Skin Cancer – Get the Facts

Learn more about how to prevent skin cancer.

Join Penn for the Focus On Melanoma Conference Friday May 18.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Melanoma Treatment: A Patient Video Guide

Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center has developed a four-part video series, Melanoma Treatment: A Patient Video Guide, in order to increase awareness of treatment options for all stages of melanoma so patients are knowledgeable and empowered during their cancer journey.

In the first of this series, melanoma patients discuss coping skills that helped them, their caregivers and loved ones through their cancer journey.

The second video features the evaluation process for determining treatment options for melanoma and the different treatment options available to early stage melanoma patients.

Video three addresses post-surgery care.

The final video of this  series addresses treatment options for metastatic melanoma including standard treatments and investigational (clinical trial) treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, isolated limb perfusion and molecular targeted therapy.

This video series has been made possible by the Roger A. Gordon Melanoma Research Fund at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. The fund was established by Roger’s family after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Learn About Skin Cancer Prevention at Penn

Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center invites you and your loved ones to attend CANPrevent Skin Cancer, a free educational conference for anyone interested in learning about preventing skin cancer.

CANPrevent Skin Cancer is designed to address the personal and medical issues facing those at risk for skin cancer. The conference provides patient-focused information about the latest advances in skin cancer risk, screening and prevention.

Who Should Attend

Anyone interested in learning about skin cancer and its prevention - especially those with:
  • Natural blond or red hair color
  • Presence of atypical or numerous moles
  • Sun sensitivity (easily burns, difficulty tanning)
  • History of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns
  • History of using tanning booths
  • History of diseases that suppress the immune system
  • Personal or family history of melanoma, basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers

Join Us

Time: 8 to 11:30 am
Date: Friday, May 18, 2012
Location: Hilton Hotel located at 4200 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
Registration: or call 800-789-PENN (7366)
Cost: FREE

Get the facts on skin cancer and melanoma risk, prevention and screening – they could save your life or the life of someone you know.

Unable to Attend?

Join the live web-chat with a panel of expert clinicians from the conference who will answer questions about skin cancer risk, diagnosis and treatment. To participate in the web chat or submit a question before the web chat, visit

The web chat is scheduled for 1:15 pm ET, May 18.

Follow Penn Medicine on Twitter for event information before the conference date, and live tweeting throughout the conference with the hashtag #CANPreventACC.

Please “re-tweet” and share Penn Medicine's messages about skin cancer prevention and awareness with your followers.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How to Tell Your Family About Your BRCA Gene Mutation

Jill Stopfer, MS, is a certified genetic counselor at the Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. She discusses cancer genetic risk, and implications for you and your family members after testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.

When faced with a breast cancer or ovarian cancer diagnosis, many women ask: “Is there a genetic link?”

For women with a personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer, this question may be even more relevant. In recent years, researchers have discovered that harmful gene mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes may increase a person’s risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers in both women and men.

The good news is that there are now proven interventions to both lower cancer risk and optimize chances for early cancer diagnosis for those who are aware they carry this risk. Through the process of genetic testing, usually performed as a blood test, these genes can be examined. And, if a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 is discovered, women and men can take a proactive approach to preventive care and screening. Those who may already have cancer may receive personalized treatments based on those test results.

Discussing the presence of genetic risk for cancer with the family can sometimes raise challenging issues. Some people don’t want to upset their relatives or they feel it’s not the right time to tell a relative. And, others don’t know how to bring it up.

Who to tell you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation

For people who have tested positive for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, the first and foremost thing to do is give yourself time to come to terms with what these test results mean to you. When you feel you are able, it may be important to consider a strategy for sharing this personal information with relatives in order to provide them with potentially lifesaving information. Often relevant people in the family to tell include:
  • Adult children
  • Siblings
  • Parents, aunts, uncle
  • Anyone with a parent who has/had a related form of cancer

How to tell a family member you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation

Find out how much your relative knows about the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Be ready to share some general information about how BRCA1 or BRCA2 can affect someone’s risk for developing certain kinds of cancer.

Start by sharing that you have been found to carry this genetic risk and that there are things family members can do to lower their own risk of cancer and improve their odds of early diagnosis.

  • Genetic information can be hard to understand so avoid medical terminology.
  • Only share your personal opinion about what to do if asked.
  • Provide printed information – printed information is available through the Cancer Risk Evaluation Program.
  • Communicate directly whenever possible, either in person, on the phone, or even electronically. Even a letter is a good way to let others know.
  • Don’t just give information, listen as well.

You may suggest family members and friends get information for themselves from a qualified expert in cancer genetics. It’s important to tailor your communication to the individual. You know best how a relative may react to this news.


Sharing can save a life

There are some things you can plan for and some things you can’t. Knowing about genetic risk for cancer informs someone about things you can do to improve your chances for good health. Knowing your genetic risk for cancer and family history can help you make informed decisions about screening, prevention and sometimes tailored treatments or therapies. .

Sharing information about risk can be lifesaving. When you tell a family member about your increased genetic risk, you are empowering them to learn more about their own health and make their own informed decisions about health care.

Ask for help – genetic counselors at the Mariann and Robert MacDonald Cancer Risk Evaluation Program can provide you with information and support to help you communicate with your loved ones. They can also help identify local cancer genetics experts if your relatives do not live in the area.

To make an appointment with one of our genetic counselors or to be seen though the Cancer Risk Evaluation Program please contact Jonathon Colon at 215-349-9093.

View presentations from the 2011 Focus On Your Risk of Breast and Ovarian Cancer Conference. 

The Basser Research Center to Focus on BRCA1 and BRCA2

The Basser Research Center — BRC for BRCA — supports research on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, harmful forms of which are linked to greatly increased risks of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The Center is named in honor of Mindy Gray’s sister, Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer at age 44.

The Basser Research Center was established with a $25 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray.

Emphasizing outreach, prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship, the Basser Research Center will contribute to all stages of research and clinical care related to BRCA-related cancers.

Learn more about the Basser Research Center.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Age Should You Be Tested for BRCA Gene Mutation?

Jill Stopfer, MS, is a certified genetic counselor at the Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Here she discusses cancer genetic risk, and when is an appropriate time to test children for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.

Women and men with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation may have questions about when, and if, their own children should be tested for the same mutation.

Genetic mutations can be passed from generation to generation and it’s important for those with a known BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation to tell their close relatives including siblings, aunts and uncles, parents and adult children. But at what age should you consider testing children for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation?

Learning you have a significantly higher chance to develop cancer one day can be scary for anyone – so it is important to consider the value in learning this information for children, teenagers and young adults.

Extensive research in families with known genetic risk due to BRCA1 and BRCA2 has shown that there is no increased risk for cancer in children. Therefore, there are no recommended interventions or special screening methods implemented during childhood. In addition, by choosing to test a child, a parent takes away that individual’s right to decide whether, and when to receive this information. Legally someone can pursue genetic testing for BRCA1/2 mutations at age 18, but it is important to know that even at age 18, screening and follow-up recommendations will not change. This is because the cancer risks associated with BRCA1/2 rarely manifest before the late 20’s or 30’s. So at age 18, national guidelines show there is still isn’t much to do even if a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation is present.

At age 25 however, things start to change for young women. Women who test positive for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation generally start annual mammography, breast MRIs and breast exams at age 25. Therefore, some find this is an optimal time to consider testing. Young men are sometimes interested in pursuing genetic testing at later ages, since there is no screening that starts for men until later. However, some young men are interested in genetic testing to use in reproductive decision making.

There is no “one size fits all” prescription for genetic testing. Genetic counseling allows each person to understand how they would be affected, and weigh the pros and cons of being testing based on their individual circumstances. Getting tested for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation can be overwhelming at any age. Fortunately no one has to go through the process alone.

Genetic counselors at the Mariann and Robert MacDonald Cancer Risk Evaluation Program can provide you with information and support to help each individual make the best decision for themselves about if and when to be tested.

For more information about genetic testing at the Abramson Cancer Center, or to speak with a genetic counselor, call 215-349-9093

Watch the Abramson Cancer Center’s Focus on Your Risk of Breast and Ovarian Cancer Conference to learn more about cancer genetics and risk assessment.

The Basser Research Center to Focus on BRCA1 and BRCA2

The Basser Research Center — BRC for BRCA — supports research on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, harmful forms of which are linked to greatly increased risks of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The Center is named in honor of Mindy Gray’s sister, Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer at age 44.

The Basser Research Center was established with a $25 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray.

Emphasizing outreach, prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship, the Basser Research Center will contribute to all stages of research and clinical care related to BRCA-related cancers.

Learn more about the Basser Research Center.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What are BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations?

Jill Stopfer, MS, is a certified genetic counselor at the Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. Here she explains genetic risk due to the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.

Women with breast cancer or ovarian cancer may want to ask their physicians if their cancer has a genetic link.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2, are genes with several roles. One important role is to repair certain types of DNA errors that may occur each time a cell makes a copy of itself. Without a gene mutation, functional BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes help ensure the stability of the cell’s genetic material, or DNA, and help prevent uncontrolled cell growth. Mutations of these genes have been linked to an increased genetic risk for multiple forms of cancer, but most notably breast and ovarian cancer.

The lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased for women who inherit a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2. These women have an increased risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer at an earlier than average age and may have multiple, close family members who have been diagnosed with these conditions.

Mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 may also increase the risk for pancreatic cancer and melanoma in both women and men. Men also have a higher chance to develop an earlier onset prostate cancer if a BRCA2 gene mutation is present. Men with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations also have an increased risk of male breast cancer.

Should you get tested for a BRCA gene mutation?

In a family with a history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, the first step may be to test a family member who has had breast or ovarian cancer. If that person is found to have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, then other family members can be tested to see if they also have the mutation.

The Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women's Cancer Risk Evaluation Center provides genetic counseling to help people identify their genetic risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other cancers.

The center assists patients with cancer as well as those individuals who may be at an increased risk for cancer.

The program is designed to:

  • Help people understand their genetic risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and other cancers.
  • Obtain and assess detailed family history information for possible inherited cancer conditions.
  • Provide expert genetic counseling and the option of genetic testing.
  • Arrange genetic testing and provide consultation regarding results.
  • Provide a clinical breast examination.
  • Provide tailored medical recommendations.
  • Review outside genetic testing results and make recommendations for follow-up.
  • Coordinate screening and long-term, follow-up care for those with a known inherited genetic risk for cancer.
  • Review medical history and lifestyle risk factors.
  • Provide a written summary of a genetic consultation.
  • Evaluate eligibility for participation in research studies.

The Mariann and Robert MacDonald Women's Cancer Risk Evaluation Center also provides information for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are interested in learning about the role of genetics in their disease.

Some people are interested in obtaining this information for the benefit of their siblings, children and grandchildren. The center also holds education and support programs periodically throughout the year for individuals at high risk for developing cancer.

*Some of this information was adapted from the National Cancer Institute.

Watch the Abramson Cancer Center’s Focus On Your Risk of Breast and Ovarian Cancer Conference to learn more about cancer genetics and risk assessment.

The Basser Research Center to Focus on BRCA1 and BRCA2

The Basser Research Center — BRC for BRCA — supports research on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, harmful forms of which are linked to greatly increased risks of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The Center is named in honor of Mindy Gray’s sister, Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer at age 44.

The Basser Research Center was established with a $25 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray.

Emphasizing outreach, prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship, the Basser Research Center will contribute to all stages of research and clinical care related to BRCA-related cancers.

Learn more about the Basser Research Center.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Basser Reseach Center to Focus on BRCA1 and BRCA2

A $25 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray will establish a center focused on the treatment and prevention of cancers associated with hereditary BRCA mutations.

The Basser Research Center — BRC for BRCA — will support research on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, harmful forms of which are linked to greatly increased risks of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The Center is named in honor of Mindy Gray’s sister, Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer at age 44.

Emphasizing outreach, prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship, the Basser Research Center will contribute to all stages of research and clinical care related to BRCA-related cancers.

“We hope that the Basser Research Center will eliminate BRCA-related cancers and, in doing so, provide a road map for curing other genetic diseases,” Mindy and Jon Gray said. “We also want to make sure that families have a center dedicated to helping them with the complex issues arising from a BRCA diagnosis. As Penn graduates, we are fortunate that our alma mater has the world-class medical facilities and gifted researchers essential for this mission.”

The Center will be located within Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center at the Perelman School of Medicine. The gift will create an endowed professorship in the field of oncology to be known as the Basser Professorship, recruit additional faculty, enhance core technologies such as bioinformatics and DNA vaccine production, launch an annual lectureship and establish the Basser Prize to honor cutting-edge research.

The Grays’ gift will support research with a particular focus on interdisciplinary work and an acceleration of bench-to-bedside implementation of scientific findings.

Susan Domchek, associate professor of medical oncology and current director of the MacDonald Women’s Cancer Risk Evaluation Center at the Perelman School of Medicine, will serve as the founding executive director of the Basser Research Center and will lead its strategic direction.

Read the full press release about the Basser Research Center.

Learn more about the Basser Research Center.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Free Melanoma Patient Education Conference

Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center invites patients, family members and anyone interested in learning about melanoma risk, prevention, diagnosis and treatment to attend Focus On Melanoma.

Focus On Melanoma is a free educational conference featuring guest speaker ABC News Reporter Sam Donaldson, and Fox 29 Philadelphia’s “Dr. Mike” Cirigliano.

Penn’s Focus On Melanoma Conference addresses the personal and medical issues facing people with melanoma including those in treatment, survivors, their loved ones, relatives and caregivers.

The conference provides patient-focused information on the latest advances in melanoma risk, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, symptom management and psychosocial issues. It is also an opportunity to network and gain support from other melanoma patients and survivors.

Who Should Attend

  • People newly diagnosed with melanoma
  • Those at risk for melanoma
  • Melanoma survivors
  • Family members, caregivers or healthcare providers of melanoma patients/survivors
  • Those diagnosed with a pigmented lesion and their family members/caregivers

Join Us

Time: 8 am to 2:45 pm
Date: Friday May 18, 2012
Location: Hilton Hotel located at 4200 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA
 or call 800-789-PENN (7366)
Cost: FREE

Unable to Attend?

If you are unable to attend in person, join the conference via free livestream. View the conference livestream for free at from 8 am to 2:45 pm ET on May 18th .

Join a live web chat from the conference with a panel of expert clinicians who will answer questions about risk, diagnosis and treatment. To participate in the live web chat or submit a question before the conference, visit

The web chat will take place at 1:15 pm EDT, May 18.

Follow Penn Medicine on Twitter for event information before the conference date, and live tweeting throughout the conference with the hashtag #MelanomaACC.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Melanoma Patient Creates SPF Clothing Line

Colleen Bronstein is a melanoma and breast cancer survivor, mother, artist, entrepreneur and a contributor to the Focus On Cancer blog. After her melanoma diagnosis in 1999, Colleen started her own business, Sun Threadz, which promotes skin cancer awareness and protection with clothing designed to protect skin from the sun’s harmful rays.

I will always remember the day I found out I had melanoma. I was exhibiting at the American Craft Council in Baltimore in July 1999 with my 14-year-old-daughter. My husband was home and received the call that I had to contact my dermatologist immediately.

We arrived home on an artists’ high - the collectors were buying, the galleries and museums were ordering, and I was so excited to be part of the creative event in Baltimore that a diagnosis of melanoma was pushed aside. I didn’t even know what melanoma was at that time - it may as well have been malaria for all it meant to me.

If I was told I had cancer, that would have gotten my attention, like when I was told of my breast cancer diagnosis. Somehow without the word “cancer” after “melanoma” it felt less threatening.

Good Day, Sunshine

For me, paradise had always been sitting on the beach in a comfortable beach chair with a good book and nothing but the sounds of the ocean to relax me.

As a child, I spent summers in Cape May – a tradition I continued throughout my life.
The Bahamas are only a couple hours away so every spring, we were on the beach soaking up the rays and just so we were sure we had every sun angle covered, we had a pool put in our backyard. Unfortunately, I was unaware that my favorite pastimes could cause cancer.

Vitamin D anyone?

After my melanoma diagnosis, I had nightmares that I could never swim in the ocean again. The thought that I would have to spend summers indoors was devastating. I knew I could never go out in the sun unprotected, and sunscreen just did not feel like it would provide enough protection so I started searching for clothing to wear.

Clothing made me feel very protected and comfortable. I ordered a couple of pieces but was not comfortable with the design or style and would never wear the clothing so I did what every artist/designer would do; designed my own pieces. These were a few key pieces that I knew I would need to continue to do all the summer things I love. I opened my online store in May 2008 since I knew there were other women who felt the say way I did.

Today, I continue to spend time at the shore, and do my laps in my backyard pool after work. I protect myself with sunscreen, and wear sun protection clothing during every activity I do outdoors. I am also very conscious of the critical hours between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun is at its strongest.

Join me on this blog as I write about melanoma, being a cancer survivor, and give tips on protecting yourself from the sun and skin cancer.

Learn about Colleen’s sun safety clothing line, Sun Threadz.

Learn about the Abramson Cancer Center’s Melanoma Program.

Attend Focus On Melanoma – A Free Patient Education Conference.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cancer-Fighting Recipe: White Beans and Pasta

After a head or neck cancer diagnosis, eating obstacles can make it difficult to maintain weight and get adequate nutrition. This may be due to the pain caused by the tumor or from surgical changes to the oral cavity making it difficult to chew and maneauver or swallow food.

Dietitians at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center and the Abrahmson Cancer Center work closely with speech and swallowing therapists to determine patients’ needs and challenges with eating. Those with head and neck cancer should seek support from a registered dietitian to make their nutritional needs are being met during treatment.

This recipe for white beans and pasta is great because it provides substantial calories from the pasta and oil. The oil helps foods glide down the throat easier, and the beans add a good texture, while providing quality protein.

This recipe can also be pureed, making it even easier to swallow for people with head and neck cancer.

White Beans and Pasta

  • 2 cans cannellini beans (white beans)
  • ½ medium yellow onion
  • 2 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Orzo, or other small pasta, cooked and drained
  • Parsley and basil to taste

  1. Dice onion.
  2. Drain and rinse 1 can of beans
  3. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to pan
  4. Over medium heat, sauté onions until soft
  5. Add beans and chicken stock
  6. Simmer for 15 minutes
  7. Save mixture whole, or puree/blend bean mixture to a smooth consistency, add remaining oil while blending
  8. Add herbs either before or after blending
  9. Toss with pasta, or add pasta to blender to puree and enjoy.

Nutritional Information: 1/2 cup sauce = 220 calories, 7 gm. Protein, 12 gm. Fat 1 cup pasta = 180 calories, 6 gm. Pro, 1 gm. fat

Recipe contributed by Joan Levicoff, MA, CC-SLP/L, a speech and swallowing therapist with Good Shepherd Penn Partners.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Learn more about Integrative Medicine for Cancer

Cancer and its treatments affect individuals physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Integrative oncology seeks to incorporate therapies from other healing traditions (e.g. herbs, acupuncture, yoga, mindfulness meditation) and promote healthy lifestyle changes in the context of conventional cancer care.

Integrative approaches will help individuals decrease symptom distress, improve quality of life, and regain a sense of control over their lives. The goal of this scientific symposium is to promote interdisciplinary collaborations and translational research that will lead to personalized integrative oncology for improved health and well-being for millions of cancer patients and survivors.

Penn presents the Penn Integrative Oncology Scientific Symposium “Translating Science Into Health and Healing,” in which cancer experts, clinicians and integrative medicine experts will present the latest scientific research about integrative medicine and its uses for cancer treatment.

Keynote speaker Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, is director of integrative medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He will discuss improving cancer outcomes and the role of integrative oncology in cancer care.

Date: Friday, May 4, 2012
Time: 8:30 am to 1 pm
Location: Medical Alumni Hall, 1st Floor, Maloney Building at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

This symposium is free, and open to the public, but registration is required.
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