An Oncologist’s Mission to Cure a Rare Blood Cancer and Health Disparities for All

Dr. Adrienne Phillips is a medical oncologist and hematologist passionate about delivering the highest-quality care to underserved patient populations.

Health disparities impact women and ethnic minorities disproportionately, including for oncology and hematology diseases. Racial and ethnic minorities face a disproportionate burden for blood disorders. For these patients, diseases tend to be diagnosed at a later stage and they may have a harder time finding stem cell donors on the current registries.

A third-generation physician with family ties to Barbados, Dr. Phillips is particularly committed to improving blood cancer disparities and outcomes among underserved populations, including Latino and Caribbean Americans.

Focused on improving large-scale disparities

Dr. Phillips, who received a masters of public health from Harvard University, understands not only the specific challenges of blood cancers, but also the larger forces contributing to disparities in health and health care that impact minority and female patients.

“Stress and anxiety are silent and frequently the most under-recognized health disparities for minority women,” explains Dr. Phillips. “Minority women are frequently the pillars of our families and communities, taking care of everyone’s health but our own. When we get sick, there may be limited resources or competing demands that make it difficult for us to receive the priority care that we need.”

Fluent in Spanish, Dr. Phillips makes it a priority to connect with each and every patient, which she believes helps improve outcomes. “Getting to know my patients,” she explains, “and giving them the best possible care are my priorities.” She also works to advance care around the world by consulting in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America sharing best practices and the latest advancements in cancer treatments.

Researching a cure for blood cancer

Her clinical research focuses on a rare blood cancer called Adult T Cell Leukemia/Lymphoma (ATLL). “This disease is endemic in Japan, Caribbean, and Latin America, and in immigrants from these countries,” says Dr. Phillips, “and because so many immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America come to New York, we see more cases of ATLL than many other medical centers.”

She has led several clinical trials to develop new treatments and therapies for this disease, as well as developed the largest database of ATLL patients in New York City. Her successes, however, have been met with certain challenges. “Because the prognosis of ATLL is so poor,” Dr. Phillips explains, “participating in clinical trials testing new drugs and stem cell transplantation are recommended. This is challenging for a disease that primarily affects minority populations for two reasons. First, minorities account for less than ten percent of patients enrolled onto clinical trials. Second, minority patients are less likely to find stem cell donors in the current donor registries.”

Her goal is to educate and increase awareness about blood cancer, the need for minorities to participate in cancer clinical trials, and the process of stem cell donation. Misinformation and misperceptions about ATLL are common. Unfortunately, this condition also carries a stigma because it is caused by a retrovirus, human T lymphotropic virus (HTLV), which many confuse with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which it is not.

“We can do a lot in terms of prevention, but we also need to raise awareness about and destigmatize ATLL,” she asserts.

Another common misperception is that donating stem cells is difficult or invasive. In reality, Dr. Phillips says, “only a cheek swab is needed to be added to the donor registry and if you’re identified to become a patient’s donor, the process is not hard — most of the time it’s like giving blood.”

Delivering tomorrow’s treatments to her patients today

Dr. Phillips’s main priority is bringing these advancements to her patients. One example is Yahaira, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia at 38 years old. When she didn’t respond to standard chemotherapy, her doctors at another hospital referred her to Dr. Phillips at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“When other doctors were talking to me about hospice, Dr. Phillips never gave up on me,” Yahaira recounts. “Dr. Phillips understood that I had to stick around to take care of my children, especially my daughter who was only an infant at the time.” Dr. Phillips was determined to do everything possible and recognized Yahaira’s strength as a single mother.

Yahaira is Hispanic and there were no matching donors for a traditional, stem-cell transplant. Instead, Dr. Phillips and her team performed a haploidentical-umbilical cord transplant. This highly advanced method involves a combination of donated umbilical cord blood stem cells and half-matched stem cells. Yahaira’s son donated the half-matched stem cells for his mother.

Yahaira’s leukemia has been in remission now for over two years. Because of her life-saving transplant, she recently was able to take her son and daughter to Disney World. “Dr. Phillips has been with me every step of the way,” Yahaira explains. “She is my angel.”

Dr. Phillips is excited about the potential for the haplo-cord transplant method to greatly improve the odds of finding a donor, regardless of age or ethnic background, therefore eliminating a notable health disparity. 

Along with all of our physicians at Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Phillips is passionate about delivering the best care and most advanced treatments to all patients. Learn more about the hematology and oncology services we offer, including bone marrow and stem cell transplantation.

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