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How A Husband’s Promise Transformed Breast Cancer Care in the Mahoning Valley

May 18 2022
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It all began with a blind date at Mercy Health – St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital.

Rashid Abdu, MD, a surgeon at the hospital who started as an intern in 1960, was set up on a blind date with a nurse named Joanie, who also graduated from the hospital’s school of nursing. The two eventually fell in love and married.

“Joanie was one of the most caring people I’ve ever met,” Dr. Abdu shares. “She cared about her patients, friends, me and our kids. As an example of how much she cared for those around her, at one point in her career she became a nurse leader of a unit at the hospital. However, the administrative work took her away from serving patients. So, Joanie decided she wanted to be hands-on, working with patients directly and she left her leadership role so she could serve others. She was an incredible woman.”

Sadly, later in their marriage, Joanie was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer.

“You could almost see it spreading,” Dr. Abdu recalls. “When she had her biopsy, the pathologist said he could almost see the cells divide under the microscope.”

At the time, there wasn’t care for Joanie’s type of aggressive cancer in Youngstown, Ohio. So, Dr. Abdu was making trips with her back and forth to Cleveland for treatment – nearly an hour and half away from their home. Joanie was set to receive a bone marrow transplant. However, after developing a malignant rash that appeared almost overnight and covered her chest and back, her oncologists sent her home to be comfortable.

As Joanie fought her battle with breast cancer, Dr. Abdu heard about a comprehensive cancer center in Long Beach, Calif. He flew out to see the center and was so impressed with what he saw. The center was handling every aspect of care for its patients – all close to home.

“I immediately came home and told Joanie about what I saw,” he shares. “I promised her that we would create a center just like it in Youngstown.”

“On her death bed, she squeezed my hand and said, ‘go for it, honey.’”

Joanie passed away on June 2, 1994. Ever since, Dr. Abdu has been committed to keeping his promise to his wife. The journey has been a long one.

“The idea of a comprehensive cancer center was new, and it took a lot of time for it to come together, some 16 to 18 years in fact,” Dr. Abdu explains. “I was having conversations and meetings all the time to explain to fellow doctors and providers why our area needed a center like this. Just like Joanie, patients were having to travel to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to receive the care they needed. That is, if they could afford to travel. Many patients in the area did not have that ability, so they sought care late and died early. In the Mahoning Valley, the breast cancer mortality rate in particular was among the highest in the country. Thus, our community needed a center badly.”

Through hard work and perseverance, Dr. Abdu’s promise became a reality and the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center (JACBCC) opened on the St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital campus in 2011.

“The day the center opened will be forever etched into my memory,” Dr. Abdu recalls. “It opened on Nov. 2, which also happens to be my birthday. I was given the honor of escorting the first patient through the doors. I felt like I was a father who was walking his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. I couldn’t help but cry.”

The JACBCC delivers the most accurate prevention, early detection, diagnosis and support services available in an environment of compassionate and coordinated breast cancer care.

Everything a patient needs is all in one place and on one floor. From ultrasounds, MRIs, 3D mammograms and breast molecular imaging to bone density scans, chemotherapy and radiology.

“Every woman who is diagnosed is presented to our interdisciplinary team composed of radiologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, surgeons and geneticists,” Dr. Abdu explains. “The team discusses every single case to evaluate the best treatment for the patient. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we held the conferences via video chat. I understand that these conferences will soon expand via Zoom across our ministry.”

In addition to the JACBCC, Dr. Abdu created Joanie’s Promise Fund, which ensures all women can receive treatment at the JACBCC by covering the cost of care for those who qualify financially or don’t have insurance.

Joanie’s Promise Fund also has a full-time community educator who teaches women about breast cancer, the importance of early detection and the resources available to them, including transportation, which the center also provides. The educator also meets with Joanie’s Sisters at the center every month. This is a group of breast cancer survivors who meet to support each other. In 2016, the JACBCC began running a state-of-the-art mobile mammography unit – the first mobile unit in eastern Ohio to offer 3D mammography – thanks to funds raised through the Panerathon, which is a 10K run and a 2 mile fun run or walk that takes place in Downtown Youngstown. All proceeds from the Panerathon support Joanie’s Promise Fund at the Mercy Health Foundation Mahoning Valley.

“Through this center, Joanie continues to help the patients she cared about so deeply,” Dr. Abdu says. “It is my honor to continue Joanie’s legacy through the JACBCC, so that others can feel the love, warmth and friendship she shared with so many. I know she would be proud of the work we’re doing.”

He continues, “visitors come from hospitals in other cities, including a delegation of physicians from Russia that visited the center, hoping to use the JACBCC as a model. We have also opened 3D screening mammography satellites in Poland, Ohio and Columbiana County, and soon we hope to have one in Courtland, Ohio. All women deserve to get the care they need.”

Learn more about breast cancer and the breast cancer care services we offer at Mercy Health.


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