Spotlight on Excellence: Breast Health & Research in NYC

Meet the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Program

Over the last 15 years, NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center (NYP/CUMC) have created an advanced, full-service breast health program staffed by employees who are truly passionate about their work.

Made possible by a total of $24 million received in grants from the Avon Foundation for Women, the facility is located in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, where 70 percent of the local community is Latino and 31 percent live in poverty. Residents of Washington Heights and the nearby Inwood neighborhood benefit from the proximity of the Center’s state-of-the-art facilities, as well as from health initiatives funded by Access to Care grants from the Avon Foundation. The Ambulatory Care Network Community Program, for example, hosts outreach events with free screenings for neighborhood residents who do not have health insurance.

Quality and Compassionate Care

NYP/CUMC’s commitment to its local community is part of what distinguishes its facility as one of the eight Avon Foundation Centers of Excellence around the country. Centers of Excellence are committed to providing care for medically-underserved populations, including low-income communities, individuals without health insurance, and non-English speakers. The Avon Foundation Breast Health Program at NYP/CUMC also collaborates with nearby hospitals and community groups to increase patient outreach and to provide women with life-saving screening and treatment services.

“The Avon Foundation has had an enormous impact on our breast cancer prevention and outreach efforts at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center,” said Dawn Hershman, M.D., M.S., NYP/CUMC Breast Cancer Research Program Leader. “Their longtime funding allows us to provide the highest level of breast cancer care to every individual in need.”

The Breast Health Program boasts cutting-edge facilities for imaging, diagnostics, treatment, and research, including the Avon Breast Imaging Center and the Avon Foundation Research Laboratory. The facilities at the Center also serve women with limited resources throughout the tri-state area as well as individuals from around the world. From the Dominican Republic, to China, or Russia, women are able to access culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

“I’m excited to work in an institution that’s passionate about its mission to provide the best, most compassionate care possible.”

“I’m excited to work in an institution that’s passionate about its mission to provide the best, most compassionate care possible,” said Karen Schmitt, R.N., M.A., Director of the Avon Breast Imaging Center NYP/CUMC. “I work with a tremendously dedicated team of women who really care about their patients.”

To provide quality support to all its patients, the Imaging Center employs a bilingual Avon Patient Navigator, as well as highly-skilled, experienced mammography radiologists.

“As a high-volume center, we need a lot of doctors and resources to provide screenings, so this grant is a huge help for us,” said Schmitt. “The bulk of our patients are Latina, and we rely on our bilingual and bicultural Avon navigator to help make sure patients keep appointments and understand the need for follow-up.”

To combat barriers to care that contribute to disparities in survival rates, the Imaging Center is continually enhancing its breast health services and grassroots outreach programs for patients and local physicians with community-based practices. As a result of these efforts, the number of women receiving mammograms and diagnostic screenings increased from 12,269 in 2005 to 20,304 in 2014.

“With the Avon Foundation’s support, we can [afford to] help anyone who knocks on our door or hears about us through outreach,” said Schmitt.

“I work with a tremendously dedicated team of women who really care about their patients.”

Pioneering Research

The Center of Excellence Research grants also fund pioneering scientific research with a particular focus on reaching underserved communities through clinical trials. This year, Columbia University Medical Center physician-scientists at the Avon Foundation Research Laboratory have conducted four studies to help understand the factors that contribute to disparities in prevention, treatment and outcomes in breast cancer patients. One of the studies, for example, examines the impact of disclosing breast density in a diverse population of women.

“The Avon Foundation has provided us critical funding for vital breast cancer research. We have been able to leverage findings from these investigations to secure additional and significant support from other organizations, allowing us to make incredible strides in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer,” says Dr. Hershman.


Part of the Community

NewYork-Presbyterian’s commitment to the cause is not limited to the clinical care it provides at the Center. Every year, NewYork-Presbyterian also pulls together a large team to walk the annual AVON 39, and has served as the medical sponsor of the walk in New York City since 2004. The 39-mile, two-day treks take place across the country, and the money raised by 39ers helps raise awareness and the funds that support Centers of Excellence, among other breast health initiatives.

Some on-duty NewYork-Presbyterian employees are tasked to provide medical support at the walk, and many others volunteer or walk. Even before NewYork-Presbyterian became the medical sponsor of the walk, it manned a rambunctious cheering station filled with employees and their families, some of whom had undergone breast cancer treatment themselves.

For many employees, breast cancer has become a personal cause. Twenty-eight EMT and medic employees attended this year, as well as fifteen other employees, including executive assistant Joanne Rodriguez, who made the commitment to walk the 39 miles.

“It is a huge challenge and personal commitment, yet it pales in comparison to what [women with breast cancer] face every day,” Rodriguez said of the AVON 39 walk. “My favorite part is knowing that we are all unified in a common cause and making a difference.”

From treating dehydrated walkers on Randall’s Island to serving women in Washington Heights, NYP/CUMC employees are making a serious impact on breast health in the greater New York City community. This Center of Excellence is just one example of the work being done across the country to end breast health disparities and improve access to breast health and cancer care.


The Avon Foundation has donated more than $155 million to the eight Centers of Excellence since 2000 to fund breast cancer research efforts and programs that aim to improve patients’ access to care. The Foundation’s grants fund pioneering patient navigator programs  that help guide patients through the hospital to ensure that they receive and understand the services they need. Click here to learn more about Centers of Excellence and Avon Foundation grant recipients.