by April Lisante
His task is overwhelming and his mission expansive. But for Dr. Pallav Mehta, a Chestnut Hill father of three, it is a way of life.
Armed with medical advances that increase his resolve and his hope each day, Mehta is committed to treating and saving women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
It is an enemy he strives to conquer one horrible, pervasive cell at a time. And as each year passes, he believes the day will come.
“Of the last 25 years of progress in cancer, breast cancer is at the forefront,” Mehta said. “Women are loud, they get together and support each other. More attention has been drawn to breast cancer, and success begets more success.
“There are so many advances in so many facets of breast cancer, from a treatment perspective, our ability to look at cancer treatment, not just to kill cancer but to have advances in knowing the difference between breast cancer cells and normal cells and to exploit those differences.”
The key to much of the modern approach to breast cancer lies in understanding how the immune system works, according to Mehta. Simply put, cancer tries to blindfold the immune system.
“We now have treatment that allows the blindfold to come off and to allow the immune system to recognize the invaders,” he said.
Mehta’s career has been devoted to the disease. He spent nearly 14 years in a fellowship at Fox Chase Cancer Center before going into private practice for about eight years at Abington Hospital. Then he moved to MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, where he is currently an assistant professor of medicine at the Cooper Medical School, as well as the director of integrative oncology at the hospital. He also serves as chief in the division of hematology/oncology at the Bott Cancer Center at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook.
“I’d always focused on breast cancer,” Mehta said. “It’s the most challenging of all the cancers.”
A tremendous challenge had always been removing the stigma of metastatic breast cancer from patients who were diagnosed. Metastatic breast cancer is considered a stage IV cancer that spreads from the breast to other organs and to the lymph nodes. The first assumption of those diagnosed had always been that it is an automatic death sentence.
“That is completely not how it happens,” he said. “Most of these women are feeling and looking fine. The treatments work.”
Detecting breast cancer quickly has always been a challenge. Mehta recently saw a young mother whose baby had suddenly stopped breastfeeding.
“It’s like an alarm,” he said.
By the time she reached Mehta, her cancer was a large mass and it had spread to her lymph nodes.
“But I just know we are going to fix it,” he said.
Why? According to Mehta, breast cancer treatment has made “across-the-board progress.”
There is better screening, as well as more mechanically advanced and faster (three-minute) MRIs. Chemotherapy is making marked advances each year. Many women who had horrific ideas of what it would entail are surprised to learn it is not that way anymore.
“I tell women – the impression they have about chemo, get that out of your head. That’s not 2019,” Mehta said. “For the first time, I’ve had women not lose their hair.”
Patients are also experiencing advances in radiation treatments and surgical techniques. Doctors are also able to much more accurately reduce side effects of drugs.
Despite treatments milestones, there is much work to be done. Our bodies have the ability to fight cancer, he believes. It is a matter of harnessing the mighty immune system to make it happen.
“We are in the infancy of seeing how the immune system integrates with cancer,” he said.
He would most like to see more advances in detection. What would be his “holy grail?”
“Ultimately, it is being able to do a blood test and seeing it,” he said. “It is also how to figure out if a woman is really cancer-free.”
With breast cancer, women are terrified. Their world has turned upside down They fear they will have to part from their children, spouses, and friends. Mehta tries to instill in them his unrelenting hope.
“Unlike 10 to 15 years ago when I used to say something is around the corner and I wasn’t sure. Now I am sure.”