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Dr. Kertrisa McWhite

Treating Breast Cancer With a Compassionate, Innovative Approach

Don’t be surprised if you sign up for a breast cancer walk and see Middlesex Health breast surgeon Kertrisa McWhite, M.D. walking beside you. In addition to providing the latest treatment of breast cancer, this fellowship-trained surgeon likes to get out into the community, supporting the cause that turns Connecticut pink each October.

Originally from Albany, Georgia, Dr. McWhite did her fellowship training at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and her residency at Monmouth Medical Center. Dr. McWhite earned her medical degree at the Drexel University College of Medicine.

She most recently worked at University of Alabama in a community hospital setting.

She began work at Middlesex in May of this year and lives with her teenaged son and daughter in West Hartford.

“I don’t live in Middletown, so participating in breast cancer-related events helps me get to know the patients and referring doctors,” McWhite said. “It really helps people make a decision about where they want to receive treatment. Seeing us out in the community makes us more approachable.”

In a recent interview, Dr. McWhite talked about her approach to treating breast cancer and some of her areas of special interest. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Q. Dr. McWhite, you offer localization of tumors during surgery using ultrasound and radar devices. Why is this a better way than was previously done?

A. There are several methods for identifying tumors in the breast, and we want to be performing less invasive procedures. Previously, we exclusively used wire localization, in which a thin wire was inserted into the breast so the surgeon could follow it and remove the cancerous lesion. Surgery is anxiety provoking enough, and to add a trip to the radiology department on the day of surgery for an older technique adds to the stress. What I prefer are tools that allow us to localize the cancer before surgery or without placing something into the breast at all.

For women with early-stage breast cancer who are having a lumpectomy, we use a device called the SAVI SCOUT. A tiny clip that is a radar reflector is placed into the breast. It can be placed any time before surgery. We then use a handheld wand to reflect a safe, non-radioactive radar beam at the clip. It helps us identify the tumor and increases the likelihood of complete removal. We can also make choices about our incision placement that will help us have a better cosmetic outcome as well.

Q. How did COVID affect breast health patients?

A. Some women definitely postponed their mammograms, both average risk and high-risk patients. Patents reported a variety of different reasons. People should be reassured that our health system and others are taking all measures to make it a safe experience. For a time, patients could not bring someone with them into the exam room and pre-surgical area. This was stressful for some. Fortunately, once the COVID-19 case numbers improved, these restrictions were rolled back.

Q. What is the latest thinking about genetic testing as it relates to breast cancer?

A. We are recommending genetic screening for breast cancer more than ever before. Most patients who have breast cancer don’t have a family history of breast cancer or an inherited genetic mutation. But still, because the risk of breast cancer is so much higher with a mutation compared to the average patient, we are looking back over three generations of maternal and paternal health history for having a higher likelihood of a genetic mutation.

Women with a strong family history of breast, colon, prostate, or pancreatic cancer should consider genetic testing. Find out if any relatives have had other types of cancer as well, and be thorough in sharing that information with your primary care provider to see if there is a need to get genetic testing. Women diagnosed with breast cancer under age 50, or who have “triple negative” breast cancer, should also ask about testing. There are numerous genes beyond the BRCA1 or BRCA2 (breast cancer genes 1 and 2) that doctors and geneticists are looking at.

Q. Do you have any plans to reach out to populations who may not be receiving the breast health care they need, such as lower income and minority women?

A. The biggest issues I see are education/fear and access. If you think of it from a socioeconomic standpoint, if someone is of lower financial means, and works full-time, lives paycheck to paycheck, and relies on public transportation, all the good information in the world isn’t going to help them come in for a mammogram from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Access is important. Being able to take an hour off work is something that employers could offer patients with little impact to their bottom line. I have some ideas for how to help, and Middlesex Health recently brought on a community navigator named Lynn Alston. She has her finger on the pulse of the community and is reaching out to a variety of people. It is my hope that we can schedule corporate events so numerous employees can come in for a mammogram at the same time and that we can expand hours to accommodate working folks.

One of the recurring things I hear from patients who either present with large lumps you can feel, large cancers, or who have skipped mammograms is that they were afraid of what the mammogram or self-exam might find. Some tell me that they feared that if they were diagnosed with breast cancer that there was no cure. It pains me to hear that because the opposite is true. Most lumps that women discover themselves turn out to be harmless. And while it is true that we may not be able to cure widespread breast cancer, if we can catch breast cancer in the earliest stages, the vast majority of patients can be cured.

Q. What is the best way for women to fight breast cancer?

A. People have been focused on the pandemic. While they weren’t looking, breast cancer became the number one diagnosed cancer in the United States. Lung cancer topped the list for a long time. Breast cancer isn’t going anywhere, and people need to remain as vigilant as ever. Women need to advocate for themselves and put themselves first. Women tend to prioritize their family and take care of others before themselves. If you’ve been putting off your mammogram, now is the time to do it.

At the Middlesex Health Cancer Center, we have some services that patients might not know about like genetic testing and access to clinical trials. We also offer access to wigs, access to Paxman Cold Caps (a technology that preserves hair during chemotherapy), massage, Reiki, and consultations with a dietician, to name a few. A lot of services that we provide are important to both physical and mental wellbeing.

Our breast nurse navigator, Ryann Nocereto, helps schedule all the appointments.

I see myself as a teacher first. Patients need to educate themselves about their diagnosis. For something as emotionally tough to handle as a breast cancer diagnosis, in order to start to making decisions, you have to start from a place of understanding. It helps patients feel secure at the time of surgery. You want to know that when you’ve made the important decisions that you weighed ALL of the information available to you at the time.

Dr. Andrea Malon, my partner and the medical director of Middlesex Health Cancer Center, and I excel at making a frightening experience as individualized as we can. We take as much time as patients need. It’s not something you can cram into a 15-minute visit. Surgery and treatment are hard decisions, the toughest some people will ever make. This is a lifetime relationship. You’re going to get tired of seeing me. Five, 10, 15 years out, I still want to see my patients at least once a year.

Alix Boyle writes about health and home and real estate from her home on the Connecticut shoreline. The natural beauty of the shoreline makes her feel like she’s on vacation every day.