Every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there are tons of stories about products whose proceeds are donated to breast cancer research and celebratory photos showing women and men who’ve successfully completed another run for charity. What we don’t hear about are the companies who are on the ground directly impacting the lives of breast cancer patients and survivors.
The BFFL company, founded by oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, was created to improve a breast cancer patient’s post-op experience and to help them prepare for the recovery process. BFFL’s signature product is the Breast BFFLBag, which Dr. Thompson launched after years of contemplation and six months of work. She describes it as the “ultimate insider’s guide to what a patient would need, but might forget to pack when going to the hospital for breast cancer treatment.”
The average Madame Noire reader, or any African-American woman under the age of 45, has a higher risk of developing and dying from breast cancer than any other cultural demographic. On this final day of October — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — we talked with Dr. Thompson for insight into why risk factors for African-American women are so high and to find out more about the inspiration behind the Breast BFFLBag.
Madame Noire: Both you and your mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. How did you mother’s struggle with breast cancer change the course of your career and inspire you to launch the BFFL Co?
Elizabeth Thompson: I had prophylactic mastectomies, a risk reduction surgery because of my serious family history of breast cancer. My great grandmother had bilateral breast cancer, my grandmother, and my mother all developed breast cancer. I was truly petrified of being next. As a doctor, I understood my risk and had been under intense surveillance. After a biopsy in 2002, I had enough. I wanted to have a fourth child and then I resolved to take action to reduce my own risk.
My mother developed breast cancer during my last year of medical school. She waited until after I had submitted my “match” list before telling me of her diagnosis because she did not want to influence my decision as to where I would train. Her struggle with breast cancer truly drove me to become a radiation oncologist and help others in their battle against cancer.
MN: Did you launch BFFL after your risk reduction surgery?
ET: I underwent a relatively new procedure when I had my risk reduction surgery. It was a direct to implant procedure whereby, I could preserve my nipples and emerge from surgery with reconstructed breasts. After my surgery, my reconstructive surgeon asked me to work for him part-time and take care of women after they underwent the same procedure. I was patient #50, by the time I left the practice we had published a landmark paper on the procedure and I had helped with almost 500 patients. That’s where I created the “tip sheet” and made the first BFFLBags.
When women would come to the office, their family and friends would ask me, “What can I do for her?” At first I would hand them a typed list, then the patients and family would ask me to “make it for them.” So, I would buy all of the contents and put it together in my basement. My husband had enough with that and encouraged me to make the BFFLBags for all women facing breast cancer.
MN: Is there a reason that African-American women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than their white counterparts?
ET: No. It’s not more likely to be diagnosed, but rather more likely to be detected and diagnosed at a later stage. We know that survival rates are better when cancers are diagnosed at an early stage.
MN: Why are African-American women at risk of being diagnosed with a more aggressive form of breast cancer?
ET: Biologics and access to care. We are still looking for a clear biologic explanation for the fact that a small number of African-American women are presenting with “triple negative” very aggressive breast cancer. Secondly, the issues of lack of access to care and delayed diagnosis are issues that must be addressed. We know that diagnosis at a later stage of disease (bigger tumors which may have spread) will lead to higher mortality.
One bright note is that community health centers that have nurse navigators—these are nurses that are employed to teach the community about having appropriate screening, looking for “red flags” – will promote earlier access to care and early detection, and if a cancer is diagnosed, higher compliance rates with therapy and women diagnosed with breast cancer have better outcomes. We should be pushing for these nurse navigators at all health centers.