When 87-year-old Mimi Reed was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2021, she had one primary goal when it came to her treatment — to maintain her independence.
“One of my main goals from the very beginning was to be independent and not be a burden on my kids,” Reed said. “Living independently gives me a sense of liberty to go the post office, to go shopping, to meet friends for brunch in the square when I want.”
Reed is one of a growing number of older patients at the Cancer Center at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC). The center has made dedicated efforts to reshape how care is delivered to older adults. Now, with $2.5 million grant from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, the Princeton Cancer Center is formally establishing a Geriatric Oncology Program, the first of its kind in the region.
“We are seeing beyond the disease and looking at the whole patient,” said board certified oncologist Ramy Sedhom, MD, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Geriatric Oncology Program. “This means understanding both the medical and non-medical sources of strength and distress — social, cultural, spiritual, financial and emotional — and having the staff and services in place to address them.”
Maintaining Quality of Life
People older than age 65 make up almost 60 percent of all new cancer diagnoses, according to the National Institutes of Health, and often they have different goals and preferences for treatment than younger patients. At PMC, the senior population is even larger — about 70 percent of cancer patients are over age 65.
In a lot of cases, quality of life is more important than quantity of life, Sedhom said.
When Sedhom first meets with an older patient like Reed, he performs a geriatric assessment to help uncover issues not normally identified during a routine medical history and physical. Do they have help at home or are they themselves taking care of a loved one or spouse? How well do they understand their prognosis? What hobbies or activities do they enjoy? What other medical or physical challenges do they face? How do they feel mentally, emotionally, spiritually?
“Sometimes the best thing we can do as doctors is to listen to what matters most,” Sedhom said. “Our ultimate goal should be to give patients the care they want — nothing less, nothing more — and make sure their wants reflect what is realistic for them.”
Sedhom, with his soft-spoken manner and gentle approach, brings a calming presence to otherwise difficult conversations. He is direct without being insensitive and ensures older patients, who are among the most vulnerable in society, have a voice in their treatment plan.
“Dr. Sedhom is always so kind,” Reed said. “He is an excellent listener, and from the beginning he had exceptional interest in what was on my mind.”
In fact, it was during one of their first meetings when Sedhom learned that Reed already knew what it meant to be a survivor.
A Journey of Survival
Born in Belgium, Reed was a toddler living with her parents in Antwerp when on May 10, 1940, German forces invaded her city.
“As the bombs came down, we left by car,” said Reed, who is Jewish and used to attend the Unitarian church. “I was almost 5.”
Reed and her family fled to Paris first, then Saint Jean de Luz in the South of France before escaping the Vichy regime to Brazil via Andorra, Spain and Portugal.
They arrived in the United States in early 1941 after Reed’s father, who was a chemist, accepted a position with a company in Williamstown, Mass.
“I remember being so scared to go to school,” Reed said. “I couldn’t speak any English.”
Fast forward to young adulthood, and Reed, after earning a Master’s degree in French from Middlebury College attended the University of Geneva as an exchange fellow, studying translation and interpreting.
She then built a successful 35-year career at Educational Testing Service in Princeton and worked with the U.S. Peace Corps, teaching language methodology to instructors of volunteers in more than 30 countries, the majority in Africa.
“I think I’m pretty lucky,” said Reed, who has three children and six grandchildren.
To treat her cancer, Reed underwent a hysterectomy, followed by six rounds of chemotherapy.
Her surgery was performed by Noah Goldman, MD, director of the Cancer Center at PMC.
As part of her follow up care, Reed attends physical therapy at PMC Princeton Rehabilitation to help her to cope in part with neuropathy in her hands and feet, a side-effect left over from chemotherapy, and has also gone for acupuncture.
“Physical therapy has helped me immensely,” Reed said.
She credits the entire team at PMC, including the nurse navigators who helped arrange appointments and guide her through her cancer journey, for the exceptional care she received.
“There were a lot of people along the way that were particularly helpful,” Reed said. “I felt I was in exceptional hands.”
Today, 18 months after her diagnosis, Reed appears to be cancer free and still enjoys regular walks around downtown Princeton where she lives and maintains a strong network of friends. She continues to work as a consultant and also is actively engaged in researching her family roots.
“My latest scans show no evident cancer whatsoever,” Reed said. “I have a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who had something to do with my care.”