Out of St. Hubert, West Chester, Drexel, and Penn, she's now a statewide crusader on breast cancer

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Pat Halpin-Murphy, President & Founder of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition

Pat Halpin-Murphy grew up in Northeast Philly’s Wissinoming neighborhood with a sister, a homemaker mom, and a candy-wholesaler dad who sold treats to schools and corner stores. “It was a very sweet job,” she says.

She went to St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, got an education degree from West Chester University, and went on, armed with a master’s in economics from Drexel and a master’s in political science from Penn, to a very varied career.

She taught at Simon Gratz High School for a decade. She taught at Philadelphia Community College, did government relations for the American Federation of Teachers, served as a deputy secretary of the state Department of Labor & Industry, and worked for Gov. Bob Casey, U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, and U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

She is founder and president of the PA Breast Cancer Coalition, which she formed in 1993. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She’s widely recognized at the state and national level for her ongoing efforts at what she calls “finding a cure for breast cancer now…so our daughters won’t have to.”

Under her leadership, the coalition has raised more than $3 million for breast cancer research in Pennsylvania, part of it from a state income tax check-off box allowing taxpayers to donate a portion or all of their tax refund for such research, an option created through legislation the coalition helped push into law.

Among Halpin-Murphy’s honors: the White House Champion of Change Award, the National Governors Association Distinguished Service to State Government Award, the Pennsylvania Commission for Women “Women Change America Award,” and the Hannah Penn Award for Civic and Volunteer Leadership.

Four successive governors have appointed her to the Pennsylvania Cancer Advisory Board. And she coauthored, with former state Secretary of Aging Linda Rhodes, “Breast Cancer: Covered or Not? A Guide on Insurance.”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We talked with her about being a survivor, pushing Pennsylvania to the forefront of 3-D mammography, and some promising avenues for research. This is an edited transcript.

How does being a breast cancer survivor yourself impact your work as a professional advocate on the issue?

Well, it’s why I started the coalition. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, and after treatment I thought that I was spared — it’ll be 25 years next year — to help other women similarly situated. Since then, the coalition has been deeply involved in every effort, from no-cost screening starting at age 40 back in the 1990s up to now.

Speaking of now, Pennsylvania, a state not known for achieving firsts in a good way, recently did just that in terms of fighting breast cancer, right?

Absolutely! We’re the first state in the nation to provide free, full insurance coverage of 3-D mammograms. They are the latest and greatest, and are 15 percent to 20 percent better in detecting, and more than 20 percent better at not causing false positives. Within a few years, they are all that will be used. In Pennsylvania, we have 363 mammography centers and 213 of them have at least one 3-D unit. Our website lists every facility that uses 3-D. They save lives. Some women were being billed for 3-D. Not anymore in Pennsylvania.

What’s the toughest challenge you and the coalition face?

I would say communicating to women and their families about resources in Pennsylvania to help for both the insured and the uninsured or under-insured. We spend a huge portion of our efforts communicating that, and the fact that we now have access to the best screening mammograms.

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but is “awareness” overplayed? Isn’t everyone aware of breast cancer? And same question for all the pink.

I think you’re right. We focus on education and advocacy, which is a whole different matter. So, it’s really important. And pink? We’re way past pink. It’s a way of reaching people. But we need to go past it to get more support for clinical trials. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. But it does make people think about it.

Some say there’s a lot of unnecessary screening and not enough forward movement to actual cures. What do you say?

They’re two separate issues. Too much screening? I don’t buy that. If you don’t screen you don’t find it early. And if you don’t find it early, it’s life-threatening. I wish there was a blood test you could do with a finger prick. But screening and research are different. We help fund research to find a cure. But until we do, women are still getting breast cancer. And screening can find it at a treatable stage.

We often see press releases, announcements for wine events to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Since alcohol can be a risk factor for breast cancer, isn’t that like holding a smoke-in for lung cancer?

There’s a well-documented body of science on tobacco and lung cancer. The tie between alcohol and breast cancer is much less settled. Even those who think alcohol’s a trigger for breast cancer – and many are thinking there are links between obesity and breast cancer – say while it may be a trigger, it’s not proven. At this year’s annual coalition conference (1,000 people in Harrisburg, Oct. 6), our keynote speaker was Dr. Cliff Hudis from Sloan Kettering, now CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Here’s the guy in charge of all oncology, and he’s saying the alcohol/breast cancer link is not proven.

How does Pennsylvania rank among states in terms of incidences of breast cancer?

We’re fourth-highest. We have on average 37 women diagnosed with breast cancer every day.

Do we know why we’re so high? Environmental stuff left over from the industrial age?

No. We don’t know. Other than our population. We are one of the older states. That could be one factor.

I’ve read North America has the highest lifetime risk of breast cancer. Why is that? Is it just a matter of better detection and reporting?

I don’t know that there are definite answers. But when women come here from countries with low incidences, such as in Asia, their incidences begin to normalize to our incidences.

What more could government or individuals or society do to advance the cause?

Make certain federal health-care protections for preexisting conditions such as breast cancer continue. Without them, people won’t be able to get insurance or afford the cost of it. Also, more research for a blood test for breast cancer. And more research, period.

Just this year, we awarded $200,000 for three peer-revived research grants and one clinical trial in Pennsylvania. The whole field of immunology for treating cancer is bursting forth right now, and that’s the frontier for treating breast cancer.