According to the Centers for Disease Control, black women and white women get breast cancer at about the same rate, but black women die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women – a rate of about 40 percent higher. In her new role as an oncologic breast surgeon at SSM Health DePaul Hospital, Dr. Jovita Oruwari seeks to reverse this statistic. “Diversity and inclusion to me means that everyone out there has the same access to health care and the same quality of health care, not just health care,” said Oruwari, who began her new role on September 1. “It’s got to be quality of care. Everyone deserves that because everyone’s health matters. It’s really about access.”
To do this, sometimes it means bringing health care to areas where it can be easily accessible to those in need or bringing people to health care facilities.
“We need to try to do things to be able to achieve equitable health care,” Oruwari said.
“It’s so important because as for people of color and breast cancer, we know that the rates of breast cancer are higher in white women, but when black women do get breast cancer, we are more likely to die from the disease. This shouldn’t be so.”
Reasons for this disparity are varied. Sometimes, black women present symptoms later than other racial groups. Other times, black women seek treatment later, Oruwari said.
“We need to find a way to bridge that gap (in order) to make health care available so that we can decrease those mortality numbers,” she said.
Female physicians of color are rare. African-American doctors who actively practice medicine make up only 5 percent of the total number of physicians in the United States, according to a 2018 self-reported survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Data documenting the number of African-American women who are breast surgeons was unavailable by press time. However, according to a 2013 Women Physician Workforce data chart from the AAMC, black women made up 7 percent of active physicians in the U.S. workforce. Currently, the American Society of BreastSurgeons (ASBS) has a membership of 2,950 in the U.S. workforce, according to ASBS personnel.
Oruwari, discovered the idea of becoming a breast surgeon during her residency. “I was fortunate enough during my residency to rotate and work with a female surgeon who did breast surgery, and that had a profound effect on me,” Oruwari said. At the time, Oruwari didn’t know that becoming a breast surgeon was a career path available to her.
“I went to medical school under the premise of wanting to be a doctor so that I could help people, and I wanted specifically to be a gynecologist because I was a woman, and that’s what we did.
“And then, somewhere towards the end of medical school, I happened to go through my general surgery rotation and I loved it! I loved being in the operating room. I loved holding a scalpel in my hand. I loved opening up the body and curing illnesses and diseases. It was just really fascinating to me. Just being in the operating room, to me, felt like home.”
Also, at the time, breast surgery wasn’t a specialty. The female physician who Oruwari shadowed had been performing breast surgery for years, Oruwari said.
“She was really a pioneer,” Oruwari said. “As a woman doing breast surgery, I loved the way she interacted with her patients.”
While the discovery of becoming an oncological breast surgeon fascinated Oruwari, she said the micro aggressions she faced during her residency were challenging.
“I was told, ‘Maybe you should do a different specialty than this,’” Oruwari said. “A lot of times, as a person of color going through training, your mind is really numb to everything that you go through because the goal is to get through it. So, a lot of those things (micro aggressions), I really didn’t think about until recently.”
It took her ten years to go back and visit the hospital where she trained because of the stress and not wanting to be reminded of discrimination. During that time, she said, you wonder whether or not you’ve experienced racism or sexism. Looking back, Oruwari said she had the support of family, medical school staff and colleagues.
Oruwari is a native of Imo State, Nigeria, and moved to the United States with her family when she was 11. She grew up on the East Coast in New Jersey and New York. She then completed medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)-University Hospital, a residency at UMDNJ-University Hospital and a fellowship in surgical breast oncology at Brown University Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. The St. Louis Cancer and Breast Institute recruited her in 2001.
Oruwari hopes her presence at SSM Health DePaul Hospital will encourage more black women to seek regular checkups, as well as seek follow-up treatment earlier if they suspect or discover a problem.
“Representation matters,” she said. “I’m hoping that my being there as a person of color will give me more visibility to (black women) and that they know I am there for them.
I’m going to be a part of their breast wellness and get them that next level of care that they may not have had.”
Oruwari said she also hopes that through her representation she will encourage more black youth to consider a career in medicine and offered some advice.
“Do a lot of research in medicine, and look at different medical specialties,” she said. “Volunteer at a hospital to make sure that you like it. Expose yourself to different doctors and shadow physicians in both offices and surgery.”
While youth will need to wait until high school to visit hospitals, Oruwari encourages students to start thinking of careers early.
“I think that when careers are talked about to kids, it’s got to start young, in elementary school. Make medicine an option. Kids need to see physicians that look like them. This is only a beginning.”