“It’s really up to me to always be thinking about the person I’m helping, not just their cancer.”
As UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Maryam Elmi, M.D. sees it, one of the most
meaningful advancements in breast cancer treatment over the last ten years may not have been discovered in a laboratory.
“The big steps involve decades of work, day in and day out. So, we don’t get many of those,” she says. “It’s all about the little things, the one percent, but those things add up.”
Keeping those one-percent gains happening, according to Dr. Elmi, is frank, open communication among care providers, researchers, patients and the public-at-large. When it comes to breast cancer, in particular, candid public dialog was not always the norm.
Highly visible public awareness campaigns and increasing specialty among physicians and researchers, however, have opened up the conversation and kept it going, to the benefit of patients and their families. Accordingly, two of Dr. Elmi’s most important duties, she says, are education and advocacy.
“The biggest cause of anxiety is the unknown. I spend a lot of time educating patients because knowledge is power. At the same time, I have to listen. Everyone comes into the experience of breast cancer with their own fears and preconceptions, and knowing these, up front, is important,” says Dr. Elmi.
One of the only dedicated breast cancer surgeons in south-central Texas, Dr. Elmi describes herself as passionate about breast cancer care. “If you can do one thing all the time, you can go very deep,” she explains. “Hyper-specialty in breast cancer research and treatment has really advanced the field rapidly and has resulted in a far better quality of care overall.”
One of Dr. Elmi’s discoveries from her clinical practice is the importance of addressing treatment with an eye toward the whole person – medically, emotionally, and psycho-socially.
“Right up front, I try to reinforce that breast cancer is treatable, there is hope, and there is support,” says Dr. Elmi. “My approach is all about empowerment, so a lot of my work involves linking patients with support services available through our program and throughout the community. The more we can do to help patients feel comfortable and empowered to focus on their care and healing, the better the outcome will be. It’s really up to me to always be thinking about the person I’m helping, not just their cancer.”
Part of that support work is discussing body image and quality of life issues at the beginning of treatment, says Dr. Elmi, who has additional training in the field of post-surgical reconstruction.
“As a surgeon, I’m always mindful of the importance of addressing breast cancer in a way that doesn’t disfigure the patient. Restoring a patient’s body image and quality of life is part of the process too,” she stresses. She points to recent gains in research and treatment protocols in the field of oncoplastics (i.e., surgical reconstruction), such as contralateral balancing. The recently-approved procedure ensures that the appearance of both sides of the patient’s chest match at the end of treatment.
“There are so many ways to work toward a great looking result, but most patients don’t know that until we talk about it,” according to Dr. Elmi. “Again, it goes back to open communication.”
In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Elmi is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology & Endocrine Surgery at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson.
She graduated from The University of Toronto medical school with honors and completed her General Surgery Residency at the University of Toronto. During her surgical training, Dr. Elmi completed a master’s degree in Clinical Epidemiology and Health Services Research at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (formerly known as Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation). She previously completed a clinical fellowship in Breast Surgical Oncology at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center and the Odette Cancer Center.
Dr. Elmi’s clinical practice focuses on the surgical management of both female and male breast cancer, familial breast and ovarian cancer syndromes, risk-reduction (prophylactic) surgery, and oncoplastic surgical techniques. She is also actively involved in surgical research, focusing on breast cancer surgical outcomes and cancer epidemiology.