Making Healthcare Accessible: How the MSK Ralph Lauren Center Helped Maria Overcome Breast Cancer

Memorial Sloan Kettering Ralph Lauren Center nurse Jasmine Gibson, breast cancer patient Maria Tucker, and nurse Margaret Bediones

Maria Tucker celebrates having no evidence of disease with her MSK Ralph Lauren Center nurses Jasmine Gibson (left) and Margaret Bediones.

As a retired teacher and active parishioner of her church, Maria Tucker knows the value of community. So when she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer at the end of 2020, her friends and family in her neighborhood in the Bronx rallied behind her.

The news was a total shock: “It knocked me right out of the water,” recalls Maria, who lives with her adult daughter, Michelle. But Maria knew she was in the best hands. She had been getting annual mammograms at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Breast Examination Center of Harlem (BECH), founded in 1979, for years. Before transferring its services to the MSK Ralph Lauren Center (MSK RLC) in 2019, BECH provided free, high-quality breast screening to more than 200,000 uninsured women at no out-of-pocket cost. Today, MSK RLC provides cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and support services in the heart of Harlem.

Maria’s early diagnosis was crucial to getting her back on the road to health. According to a new study, breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among Black women as of 2019.  

Maria was comfortable getting her yearly mammograms nearby. “Proximity to home is one of the benefits MSK RLC offers,” says Kathleen Killoran, who is Maria’s medical oncologist.

“We’re in a community that she’s familiar with,” Dr. Killoran says. “And because we’re a smaller outpost of MSK, we can provide a familylike environment. Sometimes, a large hospital can feel overwhelming.”

Providers and staff members speak both English and Spanish, which enhances communication with the 60% of MSK RLC patients who are native Spanish speakers.

MSK Ralph Lauren Center
Learn how the MSK Ralph Lauren Center brings high-quality cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment to residents of Harlem and surrounding communities.

Patients also have access to a nutrition consultation, a food pantry, mental health services, and legal advice. Dr. Killoran says that the MSK RLC team “pays extra attention to patients’ social concerns and concrete needs because these issues can present obstacles to treatment, both physically and emotionally.”

No More Fear

Maria learned she would need surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Some of her treatment took place at MSK RLC; for services not available there, like surgery and radiation, she went to MSK’s main hospital on the Upper East Side of New York. Through it all, Dr. Killoran kept her motivated.

“The encouragement from Dr. Killoran was really excellent,” Maria says. “I used to have a big fear of doctors, but I got over that with her. She is a prime example of what a physician should be: caring, loving, and concerned.”

Because we're a smaller outpost of MSK, we can provide a familylike environment.
Kathleen Killoran medical oncologist

After 12 months of treatment, Maria has no evidence of disease. She’s getting ready to relocate with her husband to Virginia Beach but plans to travel back to New York for her checkups with Dr. Killoran. She’s looking forward to maintaining her connection with members of Dr. Killoran’s team.

“They’re part of my family now,” she says. “We laugh and talk. I like shopping, and they always say, ‘Let me see what you have on today!’ ”

Serving the Community

Maria knows her yearly mammogram likely saved her life and spreads the word about early detection in her community. She says she would tell any woman facing a situation like hers to “have faith and trust that MSK RLC is the place to be.”