Meet Our Doctors: Breast Cancer Surgeon Lesley Taylor, M.D.
May 25, 2017 | by Travis Marshall
As the daughter of a Brazilian mother and British father in Princeton, New Jersey, she shifted seamlessly from English to Portuguese and Spanish. Her mother studied nursing before becoming a teacher, and Taylor took an early interest in health care, volunteering in hospitals from a young age.
Taylor says she inherited her drive to help others from her grandfather, who was well known for his social work in Brazil.
“I think a majority of physicians feel like they have a calling,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t a matter of if I would go into medicine, but when I would.”
During medical school, she found a mentor in renowned breast cancer surgeon Deborah Axelrod.
“She took me under her wing, and I knew after my surgical rotation I wanted to do breast cancer surgery,” Taylor said. “I loved the patients — being a witness to their process, seeing them come to the other side as survivors and how that changed their perspectives on life.”
A Doctor without Borders
The rapidly evolving breast cancer field excited her, promising a career on the leading edge of science with rapidly improving outcomes for the women she treated. But at the same time, she realized that those advances weren’t available to large numbers of women in other parts of the world.
“Breast cancer in the undeveloped world is so much different from the developed world,” Taylor said. “Women are dying from a disease they don’t have to die from. We have so much room to expand our cancer initiatives abroad.”
As a surgical resident, she assembled a multidisciplinary team of 17 volunteers to expand breast care in Gualaceo, Ecuador, a remote town in the Andes. She successfully applied for a global health grant through the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to fund five medical students on the trip.
“We saw 843 patients in one week doing breast exams, and took three patients to the operating room at the end of the week,” she said. “But with breast cancer, it’s not just about fixing it. We also have to connect them with local resources.”
For her next international project, Taylor was recruited by Albert Einstein College’s Carol Harris, M.D., director of the Einstein Institute of Global HIV Medicine, who was working to establish clinics in Ethiopia.
“She approached me because she knew of my interest in global health,” Taylor said. “Breast cancer is now the No. 1 cancer among women in Africa, and Ethiopia has the biggest disparity in terms of the ratio of specialists to patients — only one cancer hospital with four medical oncologists for a population of 90 million people.”
Taylor and Harris received a grant from the Roche African Research Foundation to create a pilot program in Hawassa, outside the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to find ways to enhance cancer care.
“About 80 percent of the country is agrarian, so these women have to travel immense distances and wait in immense lines. There weren’t even basic medicines like morphine available,” Taylor said. “Many of these patients could be treated with tamoxifen, and with breast health awareness we could catch cases at an earlier stage while they’re still treatable.”
The Journey to City of Hope
Taylor has now been involved with medical initiatives in Ethiopia for seven years. And despite struggling through political unrest, demonstrations, and shortages of medicine and supplies, she and her team were eventually able to create the country’s first decentralized breast cancer center, which she hopes will serve as a model for other regional cancer hospitals in Ethiopia.
Taylor also helped six Ethiopian scholars earn Susan B. Komen grants to receive training that will make them experts in the field of breast cancer research. And her role at City of Hope has allowed her to connect those students with leading-edge expertise from the cancer center’s considerable slate of specialists.
“City of Hope is collaborating internationally to help these students get their degrees by supplementing the curriculum, offering mentorship and assisting with their thesis writing,” Taylor said. “They’ll have their degrees in three years, and then they’ll be poised to become leaders in their field in Ethiopia – and the future teachers for new generations of health professionals in their country.”
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