Deborah Axelrod, M.D.: Surgeon
To unwind after a day of breast surgeries, Deborah Axelrod sits at her dining room table and beads long into the night, creating necklaces, earrings and bracelets with glass and semi-precious stones. While beading, she’s thinking of ways to bring awareness about breast health to more women, including a bilingual film for Arab-Americans being released this month.
As Director of Clinical Breast Programs and Services and Medical Director of Community Cancer Education and Outreach at NYU Clinical Cancer Center, Axelrod performs 10-12 surgeries a week, teaches, and runs programs in New York’s five boroughs. And she conducts beading workshops for the operating and recovery room staffs at NYU. “Everyone had a great time. They’re still talking about,” she told Education Update, laughing that it “elevated her status” in staff eyes.
For Axelrod, education and outreach are the way to save lives. “I wish I had $2.5 million to do outreach,” she said. On her wish list: a survivorship clinic, a brochure about health privacy laws, and a program addressing lymphedema, or arm swelling, to reduce cancer risks. Most programs are funded by grants, many from the Susan G. Komen Foundation among others. AMBER, an acronym for the Arab-American Women Breast Education and Referral, provided funds for the latest film, bilingual materials, health fairs, and breast screenings.
Axelrod says she “wasn’t someone who always wanted to be a doctor.” After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, she became involved with a project using laser light, which led her to medicine. At the University of Tel Aviv, a mentor inspired her to study endocrinology. “We’d go from bed to bed examining people’s thyroids. She taught me the breast is an endocrine organ and a lot can happen to it,” she said. Another mentor during her residency at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation encouraged her to become a breast surgeon. “He said I could be a woman in surgery and didn’t have to be a brute, to behave badly, or tell dirty jokes. I saw a guy tell a patient, ‘You have the big C.’ I felt I could do a better job talking to women,” she said.
Yet as a young surgeon in the 1980s, Axelrod noticed the absence of women in the field. “I went to a meeting of the New York Surgical Society and only two women were there,” she said. In her office this year, eight out of nine interns are women.
The author of two books, including Bosom Buddies: Lessons and Laughter on Breast Health and Cancer written with Rosie O’Donnell, Axelrod takes her message to conferences across the country. She is widely published and has a website, www.breastdoc.com. Her advice to young people: “Pursue your passion. There are many sparks in this field. Find a mentor. Be persistent, be tenacious, be there, and you won’t miss opportunities.” #